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Libyan regime defiant as protests swell

Kadafi's son airs a statement that security forces will fight 'to the last bullet' to put down the protesters. Rallies and protests are held in Morocco, Yemen and Bahrain as a wave of unrest builds.

February 21, 2011|By David Zucchino and Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Appearing after midnight on state television, Moammar Kadafi's son Seif Islam denied rumors that his father had fled the country, saying without elaborating that he was still in Libya.
Appearing after midnight on state television, Moammar Kadafi's… (Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — Protesters in Libya have seized control of the country's second-largest city and several eastern towns, Moammar Kadafi's son acknowledged in comments broadcast early Monday, but he vowed that security forces would fight "to the last bullet" against efforts to end his father's four decades in power.

Human rights groups said the death toll in Libya had exceeded 200 after six days of unrest. Police and government-hired mercenaries Sunday shot at people gathered to mourn three dozen activists killed by police the previous day in Benghazi, according to video and online accounts trickling out of Libya. There were reports of government snipers firing on demonstrators from rooftops in the city.

The day's events shook Kadafi, a mercurial leader who was an implacable foe of the United States until he began to make overtures to the West in 2003. The oil-rich nation has been closed to outsiders and authorities have restricted Internet and phone access.

Elsewhere, the tide of protest across the Middle East and North Africa swelled, from Morocco on the Mediterranean to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, both ruled by pro-Western leaders. In Yemen, some legislators and regional officials quit the ruling party because of a crackdown on protests by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In a sign of the United States' growing concern, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began a weeklong trip for talks with U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Kadafi's son Seif Islam, appearing after midnight on state television, warned of an impending civil war and said the country had reached "a critical crossroads." He denied rumors that his father had fled the country, saying only that Kadafi was still in Libya.

The younger Kadafi said the military had made mistakes in confronting demonstrators, but would remain loyal. He blamed the unrest on foreigners, Islamists and criminals whom he accused of plunging the country into civil war and threatening to destroy its oil wealth.

Demonstrators had "formed a government" in Benghazi and other eastern towns, he said, but vowed that the government would "fight until the last man … the last bullet" to crush the revolt.

He offered to engage dissidents in an "historic national initiative." It was not clear when the remarks were recorded.

Protesters in the capital, Tripoli, contacted by Al Jazeera news channel and the BBC said early Monday that security forces seemed to be retreating from some parts of the city, and that demonstrations there were growing. Addressing the elder Kadafi, protesters chanted: "Where are you? Come out if you're a man!"

Khaled Mattawa, a poet who is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said relatives in Tripoli had told him that about midnight protesters converging from several directions on the city center were scattered by live fire.

In comments earlier, analyst Amr Chobaki of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo said that Kadafi controls Tripoli, but had lost Benghazi and much of the east to the protesters.

"It puts him in a very bad situation," Chobaki said.

Human Rights Watch said Sunday that based on information from hospital sources, the death toll was at least 233. Amnesty International accused Kadafi of trying to suppress the protests "virtually at any cost."

In Benghazi and other towns, according to accounts on social networking websites, demonstrators chanted, "The people demand the removal of the regime!" — the same chants that rallied protesters in successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

But unlike those two North African nations, Libya is a tribal society. The army and security services are structured on tribal loyalties, making it less likely that the military will take the nonconfrontational approach of Egypt's professionally trained army.

Amnesty International said bodies in Benghazi bore gunshot wounds in the head, chest and neck, indicating that security forces were shooting to kill. Some Libyan websites reported that Benghazi hospitals were putting out emergency calls for medicine and supplies after treating waves of victims over the weekend.

Mattawa, the Michigan professor, said a relative in Benghazi told him the last battle for control of the city took place in a military compound about three miles outside town. The army forces had split and were fighting each other, according to that report. People in the eastern port of Dernah also reported their city was under opposition control, he said.

"We don't need bread; we've eaten enough," he quoted a writer in Dernah as telling him. "We want to eat democracy; we want to drink freedom."

Cities in eastern Libya have long been hotbeds of unrest. In 1996, Kadafi's security forces massacred a reported 1,000 prisoners at Abu Lim prison in Benghazi, and anti-government anger has simmered since.

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