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Khadafy foes gain in Libya turmoil

Son of ruler warns of civil war

Crowds gathered during the recent days’ unrest in Benghazi, where protesters took over the local army barracks yesterday. Crowds gathered during the recent days’ unrest in Benghazi, where protesters took over the local army barracks yesterday. (Associated Press)
By David D. Kirkpatrick and Mona El-Naggar
New York Times / February 21, 2011

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CAIRO — The son of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy warned in a nationally televised address early today that continued antigovernment protests could lead to a civil war.

The son, Seif al-Islam Khadafy, said the army continued to support his father, although he acknowledged that protesters had seized some military bases, as well as tanks and weapons.

“We are not Tunisia and Egypt,’’ he said in his rambling and sometimes incoherent address, referring to the successful uprisings that toppled longtime regimes in Libya’s neighbors. But he also acknowledged that the army had made mistakes during the uprising.

Hours earlier, the protests against Khadafy’s 40-year rule spread to the capital, Tripoli, while protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi were celebrating their takeover of the city. A prominent Libyan diplomat said he was quitting to join “the popular revolution.’’

Witnesses in Tripoli interviewed by telephone last night said protesters were converging toward the city’s central Green Square and clashing with heavily armed riot police officers. Young men armed themselves with chains around their knuckles, steel pipes, and machetes.

The police had retreated from some neighborhoods, and protesters were seen carrying police batons, helmets, and rifles. Protesters had set dumpsters on fire in some neighborhoods, blocking roads. In the early evening the sounds and smells of gunfire hung over the center of Tripoli, and by midnight looting had begun.

“The state has disappeared from the streets, and the people, the youth, have practically taken over,’’ said Monsour Abu Shenaf, a resident of Tripoli.

In Benghazi, the country’s second largest city and the starting point of the revolt, three people said special military forces called in as reinforcements had instead decided to help the protesters take over the local army barracks.

“The gunshots you hear are the gunshots of celebration,’’ said Abdel Latif Al Hadi, 54, a Benghazi resident whose five sons were part of the demonstrations.

Moammar Khadafy, 68, remained silent last night. He has watched both the strongmen to his west, in Tunisia, and his east, in Egypt, fall from power in the space of five weeks. But Khadafy has skillfully cultivated tribal rivalries to avoid any threat to his authority for decades, and he showed no sign of giving up.

His son said Khadafy remained in the country and would “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.’’

Over the last three days Khadafy’s security forces have killed at least 173 people, according to a running tally by the independent international organization Human Rights Watch. Several people in Benghazi hospitals, reached by telephone, said they thought as many as 200 people had been killed and more than 800 wounded there on Saturday alone, with many of the deaths from machine gun fire.

After protesters marched in a funeral procession yesterday morning, the security forces opened fire again, killing at least 50 more people, a doctor at one hospital said.

The escalating violence in Libya — a cycle of funerals, confrontations, and more funerals — has made the revolt there the bloodiest in a wave of uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

Under Khadafy’s four decades of idiosyncratic rule, Libya has become a singular quasi-nation, where the official oratory disdains the idea of a nation-state, tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military, and both protesters and the security forces have reason to believe that backing down will likely mean their ultimate death or imprisonment.

“The most dreadful crime against humanity is taking place in this city,’’ Hadi said in Benghazi, recalling the killings on Saturday. “In the eastern region, there is no going back after this bloodbath.’’

In another break with the Khadafy government, there were reports that the powerful Warfalla tribe had switched its allegiance to the cause of the protesters. A leader of the tribe appeared on the Al Jazeera news network urging the Khadafy government to stop firing on civilians and suggesting that it may be time for Khadafy to step down.

The Libyan government has attempted to impose a near-total news blackout on the country. Foreign journalists are not permitted to enter the country. Internet access has been almost totally cut off, although some protesters appear to be using satellite connections or telephoning information to news services outside the country.

Benghazi, the traditional hub of the country’s eastern province, has long been a center of opposition to the Khadafy government, which is centered in the western city of Tripoli. In 1996, Benghazi was the site of a massacre at the Abu Slim prison, where security forces killed about 1,200 prisoners. Those killings have since become a rallying cause for Khadafy’s critics there.

Opponents of the regime had designated last Thursday as a day for demonstrations, dubbed the “day of rage’’ and inspired by the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. But on Tuesday, the security forces detained a prominent opposition lawyer, Fathi Terbil, who represented many of the families of prisoners killed in the prison massacre, and members of the families led the protesters into the streets the next day.

By yesterday, Terbil had been released and set up a live online video broadcast that appeared to come from the roof of the Benghazi courthouse overlooking what residents now call their Tahrir Square. He called it Free Libya Radio.

“We are expecting people to die today, more people than before,’’ Terbil said early yesterday, before the latest round of funerals and shootings began.

He added, “Long live a free Libya. We are determined to fight till the end for our country.’’

Residents of Benghazi described a continuing battle for control of the city, which has a population of more than 500,000. Thousands of protesters occupied a central square in front of the courthouse. As they had for days, they were chanting slogans that had echoed through the streets of Tunis and Cairo, including “The people want to bring down the regime.’’

A brigade of more than 1,000 members of the security forces were concentrated a few miles away from the courthouse in a barracks in the neighborhood of Berqa. Witnesses said young protesters were attempting suicidal attacks on the barracks. The security forces responded by shooting from the cover of their fortified building, while others fired from vehicles as they cruised the side streets.

But by afternoon, witnesses reported streams of new protesters flowing to Benghazi from other cities around the eastern part of the country to support the revolt. Then another military brigade of reinforcements, described by witnesses as special forces, had begun collaborating with the protesters, with some lending their tanks to help assault other units of the government’s security forces.

Soon the protesters stormed the local headquarters of the state security services.

“These young men are taking bullets in their chests to confront the tyrant,’’ Hadi said, speaking by telephone from the siege of the security building.

Within hours, several protesters said, they had taken control of the army barracks as well.

“Despite the pain and victims, we are happy, because the blood of our sons was not spilled in vain,’’ Amal Mohaity, a lawyer and human rights activist, said. “Mark my words: Khadafy is coming down, he is coming down, he is coming down.’’

There were reports of uprisings in several other cities along the coast, including in Baida and Misratah. In the city of Darnah, about 70 miles east of Benghazi, a witness said five people had died in clashes with the police on Thursday, but that by yesterday the protesters had set fire to the security headquarters and the police had pulled out.

“Right now, people are terrified,’’ said Ashraf Tarbah, a public employee, “and they are praying for the people of Benghazi.’’

A group of 50 prominent Libyan Muslim religious leaders issued an appeal to the security forces to stop participating in the violence against protesters.

“We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our creator and by his beloved prophet of compassion (peace be upon him),’’ Reuters reported the statement as saying.

Over online social networks, Libyans were calling for help from across the eastern border with Egypt, pleading for sympathetic Egyptians to bring medical supplies to help the protesters. And Egyptians, with the help of Libyans living abroad, were organizing aid convoys to the border.

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