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In Libya, a Despot's Defiance

Bloodbath in Tripoli as tyrant Gaddafi threatens to 'cleanse' country

by Kim Sengupta, Diplomatic Correspondent and David Usborne

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi last night warned Libya's growing opposition that he would rather die as a martyr than leave the country he has ruled for more than 40 years, setting the stage for a brutal conclusion to a conflict that has grown bloodier by the day.

Protesters step on posters depicting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during a sit-in organized by Lebanese and Arab students against him and to express solidarity with anti-government protests in Libya, in front of the U.N headquarters in Beirut February 23, 2011. (REUTERS/Sharif Karim) In a rambling address that was far removed from the uncharacteristic brevity of his surreal appearance on state television the night before, the dictator branded protesters as easily manipulated "children" and "terrorists" who should be executed.

"We have not used force yet," he said, despite mounting evidence that his regime has conducted a ferocious campaign to force demonstrators from the streets, with at least 295 people reported dead and many more unaccounted for. He issued a chilling ultimatum to his enemies, who appear to have largely driven his forces from the east of the country. "If we need to use force, we will use it," he added. "If weapons are not handed over, we will announce the holy march. I will call on millions from one desert to another to cleanse Libya house by house."

Colonel Gaddafi, 68, spoke from behind a podium at the residence that was hit by US air strikes in the 1980s. Dressed in a brown turban and cloak, he pounded his fist and pointed his finger as he spoke via video screen to a few hundred supporters in Tripoli's Green Square. He blamed the unrest on foreign powers, brainwashing, drug dealers and regional turmoil that has preceded Libya's incipient civil war: "Go out in the street, arrest them. Their crimes are punishable by execution."

As oil prices rocketed in response to an apparent threat to suspend exports, the Libyan leader declared himself the personification of the country's most proudly held values. "Muammar Gaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution," he said.

But his claims to glory, liberty and resistance stood in sharp contrast to the horrific scenes on the streets of Tripoli, which witnesses described as a bloodbath. "They were firing at any living thing," said one resident. "Bodies are in the streets; those injured and now bleeding cannot find a hospital or an ambulance to rescue them. Nobody is allowed to get in and if anybody gets in, [they] will be shot to death."

The witness, who refused to be identified for fear of retribution, said he came upon a group of militiamen as he tried to escape the violence. "The Libyans among them warned me to leave and showed me bodies of the dead," he said. "They told me, 'We were given orders to shoot anybody who moves in the place'."

Armed Gaddafi loyalists, including some apparently from sub-Saharan Africa, were reported to have set up roadblocks and opened fire from rooftops. Another protester described ruthless violence in Green Square. "Men wearing civilian clothing in the square were shooting at us," he told Human Rights Watch. "I saw guys taking off their shirts and exposing their chests to the snipers. I have never seen anything like it. I was very ashamed to hide under a tree but I am human."

The protests came in response to Colonel Gaddafi's previous broadcast, which infuriated the opposition – although many people did not hear his speech because of power cuts. One who did, a 22-year-old student from Tripoli named Mina Abdullah, said: "It was an insult. He did not say sorry for the killings and all the terrible things his men have been doing. We had really hoped he had gone away, but he is still here and all the troubles will continue and there will be no change."

As violence spread, a mass exodus got underway. Big oil multinationals, aid organisations and foreign governments activated emergency airlifts, while thousands of people gathered at the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. Reports from within Libya suggested that the regime had lost its grip on the east of the country.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council condemned the crackdown on anti-government protesters and demanded an immediate end to the violence.

A press statement agreed by all 15 council members expressed "grave concern" at the situation in Libya and condemned the violence and use of force against civilians. Council members called for immediate access for international human rights monitors. It also underlined the need for the government to respect the rights to peaceful assembly, free expression and press freedom.

Libya's deputy UN ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi has called for Colonel Gaddafi to step down and called its attacks on peaceful protesters "genocide". He said the council statement was "not strong enough" but was "a good step to stopping the bloodshed". He said he had received information that Colonel Gaddafi's collaborators have started "attacking people in all the cities in western Libya".

Mr Dabbashi's superior, who was notable by his absence on Monday, said last night he was remaining at Colonel Gaddafi's side and promised that the violence in Libya would cease. "They will stop everything. They will stop this escalation, stop this crackdown," Ambassador Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham told reporters.

The army deployed a "large number" of soldiers in Sabratah, 50 miles west of Tripoli, after protesters destroyed almost all the security services offices, the online Quryna newspaper reported. Facing the rebels in Tripoli, for the first time in numbers, were Bedouin tribesmen who had come into the capital to show support for Colonel Gaddafi.

Libya's symbolic defiance

The backdrop for Colonel Gaddafi's tirade spoke volumes of symbolic defiance. Tripoli's Bab Al-Azizia Barracks were once part of his private residence until they were ravaged by bombs dropped by American jet fighters in 1986, a key event that led to the Lockerbie bombing by Libyan agents two years later.

The US attack on the barracks was a retaliatory strike ordered by President Ronald Reagan, who accused Libyan forces of orchestrating a bomb blast in a West Berlin nightclub which killed two members of the US army. Never repaired, the barracks have become a monument to Libyan defiance, underlined by a sculpture of a fist clenched around a crushed US bomber.

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