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Libyan general joins rebels in Zawiya

State TV reports that Maj. Gen. Khalid Shahmah has switched sides. Meanwhile, government officials deny rumors that Moammar Kadafi will resign.

March 08, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — A Libyan general has switched sides in one of two fiercely contested western cities that have been strongholds of the opposition to Moammar Kadafi, state television said Tuesday.

Fierce fighting continued in the city of Zawiya, which has emerged as one of two key battlegrounds in the area around the capital, Tripoli. Although Kadafi controls the capital, his opponents have seized much of the eastern part of the country and are working on forming a competing government.

In an "urgent" on-screen caption, a state-controlled television station reported that Maj. Gen. Khalid Shahmah had joined the rebels in Zawiya. It did not further identify the general or clarify his role in the military.

Droves of officials have defected from Kadafi's regime. On Tuesday, Musa Kuni, former consul general to the nearby country of Mali, appealed to Libyans of ethnic Tuareg descent like him to join the opposition.

Opposition leaders accuse the government of recruiting mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to fight anti-Kadafi forces. The rebel spokesman in Misurata, the other battleground city in western Libya, said his side had captured several fighters from Mali and Chad.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, Kadafi opponents said they had confirmed that some mercenaries were Algerian and that a downed pilot was a Syrian.

Despite some high-profile defections, officials have defiantly denied rumors that Kadafi was considering resigning, and he appeared briefly late Tuesday at a Tripoli hotel housing many foreign journalists.

"The leadership of the revolution is not a presidential or royal position from which Moammar Kadafi could step down," Kadafi's son Saadi said in a broadcast interview. If the leader were to step down, he said, "an unmerciful civil war will take place" similar to that of Somalia or Afghanistan.

Saadi also said his brother Seif Islam and a group of advisors had been running the country for the last four years, with the patriarch providing only overall guidance.

A spokesman for Kadafi opponents in Benghazi denied reports that they had agreed not to prosecute the dictator if he resigned within 72 hours.

"We will not negotiate over the blood of our people," said the spokesman, Abdulhafith Ghuga. "There has been no proposal put in front of us and the regime is still killing people with heavy artillery."

daragahi@latimes.com

Times staff writer Raja Abdulrahim in Benghazi contributed to this report.

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