Middle East

Protests Escalate In Libya

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Libyan protesters claimed control of the country's second largest city, Benghazi, and anti-government unrest and violence spread to the capital, Tripoli. Moammar Gadhafi's regime appeared to be preparing a new major assault in the capital in an attempt to crush unrest.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Violence in Libya reached the capital today. In Tripoli, demonstrators called for longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi to step down. Late this evening, a defiant Gadhafi appeared briefly on state television. He dismissed rumors that he had left the country and that he remains in Libya's capital.

According to doctors, human rights groups and many locals, those protests prompted a deadly response from the government. Human Rights Watch says at least 233 people have been killed in the first four days of demonstrations. Hardly any foreign journalists have been able to get inside the country and that means of the information coming out of Libya, it is nearly impossible to sort fact from rumor.

NPR's Jason Beaubien has our story from Cairo.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year control of Libya today appeared to be slipping. Key figures in Gadhafi's government, including his justice minister, his ambassador to the Arab League and Libya's representative to India have all resigned in protest over the regime's brutal response to the uprising.

Residents in the eastern city of Benghazi tell NPR that security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in a funeral procession. Reports on Arabic television and the Internet say that security forces have lost control of Benghazi, and Libya's second largest city is now in the hands of the protesters.

In the regime's first official response to the mass demonstrations, Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam, warned on state-run TV last night that the country is on the verge of a civil war.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Mr. SAIF AL-ISLAM GADHAFI: (Through translator) Many of the ammunition depots have been stolen. We have arms. The army has arms and this force that wanted to destroy Libya does have arms. So everyone is armed. And therefore, we can have 40 years of civil war.

BEAUBIEN: The younger Gadhafi wagged his finger at the camera and said that this uprising will not be tolerated. He said the army is still on the side of his father. He cautioned the protesters, we will keep fighting until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet. But it's unclear how firm Gadhafi's grip on power remains.

Protesters claim that the government has brought in African mercenaries to put down the unrest. Also, the head of the influential al-Warfalla tribe in Eastern Libya today told the Al-Jazeera network that his tribe would cut off all oil exports if the crackdown on protesters doesn't stop. He also said Gadhafi should leave the country.

(Soundbite of protest)

BEAUBIEN: In Cairo, protesters filled the streets in front of the Libyan embassy today, chanting, Egypt and Libya are one, and calling for Gadhafi to step down. Libyan Hussein Soufrakis(ph) says he's hearing from friends, relatives and sporadic media reports that security forces are shooting protesters in cold blood.

Mr. HUSSEIN SOUFRAKIS: I mean, this is an extreme amount of lives lost. You know, when figures hit 20 and 25 here in Egypt, there was an uproar, an international uproar. We're hearing from anywhere between 200 to 1,000 now. I mean, this is bloodshed, this is massacre.

BEAUBIEN: Soufrakis says he worries that Gadhafi will never voluntarily step down. And, he says, only the army is still propping him up.

Mr. SOUFRAKIS: Sooner or later, the army is going to say, you know, we can't kill this many people of our own people. They just can't. They're going to have to join us. And we're hearing reports that a lot of the army top brass are beginning to flip. So, you know, this is what we're hoping, that for the love of their people, that they're going to come and see what's right.

BEAUBIEN: And there are signs that that may be happening. A pair of Libyan fighter jet pilots deserted with their planes this afternoon to Malta. After landing their Mirage jets at the Malta International Airport, the pilots surrendered and requested political asylum.

Meanwhile, the U.S., citing the violence throughout Libya, has ordered the evacuation of all diplomats, family members and non-emergency personnel immediately. And Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, says Washington is very concerned about the current situation in the oil-rich country.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Cairo.

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