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Libya: Gaddafi struggles to hold on to power

February 24, 2011 19:58 IST

Libya's embattled leader Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday scrambled hard to stick to power as anti-regime protesters gained control of several eastern cities and the revolt moved closer to the capital Tripoli with many army officers defecting to join the uprising.

The town of Zuara, 120 km west of the capital Tripoli, has reportedly become the latest to fall to the opponents of 68-year-old Gaddafi. There were no police or soldiers left in Zuara, BBC quoted witnesses crossing out of Libya as saying.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, residents had been queuing to be issued guns looted from the army and police in order to join what they called the battle for Tripoli, it said. However, the regime continued to unleash a crackdown in the capital city where, according to witnesses, 'militias' roamed around the streets to target protesters. They said Tripoli was heavily guarded by pro Gaddafi forces, with tanks deployed in the suburbs.

Sending a stern warning to the Libyan leader, United States President Barack Obama indicated that strong unilateral and multilateral measures in the form of sanctions were being deliberated. He described the suffering and bloodshed in Libya as "outrageous" and "unacceptable" and asked the world to speak in one voice against violence by the Gaddafi regime in his first remarks to the press over the crisis.

As rebellion inched closer to Tripoli and defections of military officers mounted, Gaddafi called on thousands of "mercenaries and irregular security forces" to defend his stronghold, in what residents were quoted as saying was a desperate and dangerous turn in more than a week-old revolt.

After the fall of cities like Misurata to rebels on Wednesday, there were reports that at least half of the nation's coast to the east, up to the port of Ra's Lanuf, appeared to have fallen to opposition forces. Other towns that appeared to be no longer under Gaddafi's control included Derna and Bayda, Al-Jazeera said.

Reports from the eastern coastal city of Tobruk, which is 140 km from the Egyptian border, said that a major chunk of the army in the east had switched sides in the revolt and people were already celebrating freedom from Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

Major-General Suleiman Mahmoud, the commander of the armed forces in Tobruk, told Al-Jazeera that the troops led by him had switched loyalties. "We are on the side of the people," he said. "I was with Gaddafi in the past but the situation has changed; he's a tyrant." NN

Thousands of jubilant people converged on the streets of Benghazi and Tobruk, setting off firecrackers, waving flags as they broke into celebrations over what the protesters described as the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. However, in Tripoli residents were scared to venture out due to fears that pro-government forces on the streets will shoot them on sight.

There had been fresh reports of clashes between pro-and anti-government protesters in the cities of Sabha in the south; Sabratha, near Tripoli; and Az Zawiya, which is in the west.

A Libyan army unit loyal to Gaddafi blasted the minaret of a mosque being occupied by protesters in Az Zawiya, witnesses were quoted as saying by Al-Jazeera. They said that protesters had sustained heavy casualties in that attack, but exact figures remained unclear.

State television reported that Gaddafi was due to make a public address to residents of Az Zawiya. Al-Jazeera said that protesters seemed to be in control of much of the country's east and there was no presence of security forces in the border areas.

The Libyan internal ministry put the death toll at 300 in the last 10 days of violence, but Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that the crackdown has killed as many as 1,000 people.

A French doctor working in Benghazi, Gerard Buffet told BBC the death toll there was at least 2,000. It also quoted the state media as saying that Interior Minister General Abdel Fatah Younes al-Abidi, who resigned on Wednesday in protest against the violence on protesters, had been kidnapped.

Gaddafi, the longstanding ruler of Libya, has vowed to stick to defending his territory and die a martyr in what he labelled as a stir by the Islamists.

The revolt that erupted in the eastern city of Benghazi has spread to other major cities over the past week despite a clampdown on media and communication and a violent crackdown on protesters.

As the local situation worsened, thousands of foreigners struggled to flee the country and foreign governments rushed to evacuate their citizens. Russia, France and the United Kingdom have already begun evacuating their citizens from the violence-wracked country while India and China have also drawn extensive plans to bring back thousands of their nationals. The European Union, South Korea and the US were also launching measures to evacuate their citizens.

Obama said his administration was considering a "full range of options" to respond to the Libyan crisis. "This includes those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners, or those that we'll carry out through multilateral institutions," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to travel to Geneva, where a number of foreign ministers will convene for a session of the Human Rights Council on Monday and the Libyan crisis is likely to be discussed.

United Nations Chief Ban-Ki-moon too blasted Gaddafi for ignoring his call to stop a violent crackdown against protesters and warned that the situation could turn "very dangerous". Referring to his 40-minute conversation with Gaddafi earlier this week, Ban expressed disgust that the Libyan ruler did not heed a strong appeal by him.

In Brussels, European Union ambassadors said the bloc was ready to impose strong measures against Libya if necessary, as Germany called for sanctions against the regime. Peru became the first country to cut off diplomatic ties with Libya over the violence.

The UN Development Programme dropped Gaddafi's daughter Aisha al-Gaddafi as its goodwill ambassador in reaction to the recent events in Libya.

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