After anti-government unrest spread to the Libyan capital of Tripoli and protesters seized military bases and weapons Sunday, Moammar Gaddafi’s son went on state television to proclaim that his father remained in charge with the army’s backing and would “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.”
Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, in the regime’s first comments on the six days of demonstrations, warned the protesters that they risked igniting a civil war in which Libya’s oil wealth “will be burned.”
The speech followed a fierce crackdown by security forces who fired on thousands of demonstrators and funeral marchers in the eastern city of Benghazi in a bloody cycle of violence that killed 60 people on Sunday alone, according to a doctor in one city hospital. Since the six days of unrest began, more than 200 people have been killed, according to medical officials, human rights groups and exiled dissidents.
He offered to put forward reforms within days that he described as a “historic national initiative” and said the regime was willing to remove some restrictions and begin discussions for a constitution. He offered to change a number of laws, including those covering the media and the penal code.
[..] He also admitted that the unrest had spread to Tripoli, with people firing in central Green Square before fleeing.
The rebellion by Libyans frustrated with Gaddafi’s more than 40 years of authoritarian rule has spread to more than a half-dozen eastern cities – but also to Tripoli, where secret police were heavily deployed on the streets of the city of 2 million.
Armed security forces were seen on rooftops surrounding central Green Square, a witness said by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The witness added that a group of about 200 lawyers and judges were protesting inside a Tripoli courthouse, which was also surrounded by security forces.
An exiled opposition leader in Cairo said hundreds of protesters were near the Bab al-Aziziya military camp where Gaddafi lives on Tripoli’s outskirts of Tripoli. Faiz Jibril said his contacts inside Libya were also reporting that hundreds of protesters had gathered in another downtown plaza, Martyrs Square.
In other setbacks for Gaddafi’s regime, a major tribe in Libya was reported to have turned against him and Libya’s representative to the Arab League said he resigned his post to protest the government’s decision to fire on defiant demonstrators in Benghazi, the second-largest city.
Khaled Abu Bakr, a resident of Sabratha, an ancient Roman city to the west, said protesters besieged the local security headquarters, driving out police and setting it on fire. Abu Bakr said residents are in charge, have set up neighborhood committees to secure their city.
‘Peaceful protests need to be respected’
The Internet has been largely shut down, residents can no longer make international calls from land lines and journalists cannot work freely, but eyewitness reports trickling out of the country suggested that protesters were fighting back more forcefully against the Middle East’s longest-serving leader.
“We are not afraid. We won’t turn back,” said a teacher who identified herself only as Omneya. She said she was marching at the end of the funeral procession on a highway beside the Mediterranean and heard gunfire from two kilometers (just over a mile) away.
“If we don’t continue, this vile man would crush us with his tanks and bulldozers. If we don’t, we won’t ever be free,” she said.
Benghazi is “in a state of war,” said Mohamed Abdul-Rahman, a 42-year-old merchant who described how some protesters burned a police headquarters.
Protesters throwing firebombs and stones got on bulldozers and tried to storm a presidential compound from which troops had fired on the marchers, who included those carrying coffins of the dead from Saturday’s unrest in the eastern city, a witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisal. The attempt was repulsed by armed forces in the compound, according to the witness and the official JANA news agency, which said a number of attackers and solders were killed.
Later, however, a Benghazi resident said he received a telephone text message that an army battalion that appeared to be sympathetic to the demonstrators and led by a local officer was arriving to take over control of the compound, and urging civilians to get out of the way.
Abdul-Rahman, the local merchant, said he saw the battalion chase the pro-Gaddafi militia out of the compound.
In another key blow to Gaddafi, the Warfla tribe – the largest in Libya – has announced it is joining the protests, said Switzerland-based Libyan exile Fathi al-Warfali. Although it had longstanding animosity toward the Libyan leader, it had been neutral for most of the past two decades.
‘Complete devotion to my people’
Gaddafi has been trying to bring his country out of isolation, announcing in 2003 that he was abandoning his program for weapons of mass destruction, renouncing terrorism and compensating victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Those decisions opened the door for warmer relations with the West and the lifting of UN and US sanctions. But Gaddafi continues to face allegations of human rights violations. Gaddafi has his own vast oil wealth and his response to protesters is less constrained by any alliances with the West than Egypt or Bahrain, both important US allies.
A doctor at one Benghazi hospital where many of the casualties were taken said 60 people were killed Sunday. US-based Human Rights Watch said 173 people died – mostly in Benghazi – in three days of unrest from Thursday through Saturday. A Switzerland-based Libyan activist said 11 people were killed in the city of Beyida on Wednesday. A precise count of the dead has been difficult because of Libya’s tight restrictions on reporting.
The Benghazi doctor said his facility is out of supplies to treat the wounded. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. He said his hospital treats most of the emergency cases in the city.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the Obama administration was “very concerned” about reports that Libyan security forces had fired on peaceful protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi.
“We’ve condemned that violence,” Rice told “Meet the Press” on NBC. “Our view is that in Libya, as throughout the region, peaceful protests need to be respected.”
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a statement Sunday that the US has raised strong objections with Foreign Minister Musa Kusa and other Libyan officials about the use of lethal force against demonstrators.
In Cairo, Libya’s Arab League representative Abdel-Monem al-Houni said he told the Foreign Ministry in Tripoli that he had “resigned from all his duties and joined the popular revolution.”
“As a Libyan citizen, I absolutely cannot be quiet about these crimes,” he said, adding that he had renounced all links to the regime because of “my complete devotion to my people.”
Al-Houni was part of the group that carried out the coup in 1969 that brought Gaddafi to power. He later fell out with him, but they reconciled in 2000. Gaddafi then named him to the Arab League post.
The Benghazi violence followed the same pattern as the Saturday crackdown, when witnesses said forces loyal to Gaddafi attacked mourners at a funeral for anti-government protesters. They were burying 35 marchers who were slain Friday by government forces.
Sunday’s defiant mourners chanted: “The people demand the removal of the regime,” which became a mantra for protesters in Egypt and Tunisia.
Hatred of Gaddafi’s rule has grown in Benghazi in the past two decades. Anger has focused on the shooting deaths of about 1,200 inmates – most of them political prisoners – during prison riots in 1996.
Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa with 44 billion barrels as of January 2010, according to the US Energy Information Administration, but it’s still a relatively small player compared with other OPEC members.
In January, OPEC said Libya produced 1.57 million barrels of oil per day. That puts it behind Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Venezuela, Nigeria and Angola.
One major US company that could be affected by unrest in Libya is Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. Occidental says it was the first to resume operations in the country after the US began to lift sanctions in 2004. Last year, Occidental produced 13,000 barrels of oil, gas and liquids per day in Libya.
In other sites of recent unrest, Yemen’s embattled president offered Sunday to oversee a dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition to defuse the standoff with protesters demanding his ouster.
The offer by the US-backed Ali Abdullah Saleh – which opposition groups swiftly rejected – came as protests calling for his ouster continued in at least four cities around the country for the 11th straight day.
A 17-year-old demonstrator was killed Sunday in the port of Aden when the army opened fire to disperse a march there, bringing the death toll to nine since the protests began.