Libyans Flee As Gadhafi's Hold Over Country Weakens
NPR Staff and WiresFebruary 23, 2011, 2:10 PM
E-mailTweetThe scope of Moammar Gadhafi's control in Libya was whittled away Wednesday as major cities and towns closer to the capital fell to the rebellion against his rule. In Libya's east, now all but broken away, the opposition vowed to "liberate" Tripoli, where the Libyan leader is holed up with a force of militiamen roaming the streets.
In a further sign of Gadhafi's faltering hold, two air force pilots — one from the leader's own tribe — parachuted out of their warplane and let it crash into the deserts of eastern Libya, rather than follow orders to bomb a opposition-held city.
The opposition reportedly seized control of Misurata, 125 miles east of the capital Tripoli, after days of fighting. Witnesses said people were honking their horns and raising flags representing the monarchy overthrown by Gadhafi more than 40 years ago.
Misurata would be the first major city in western Libya to fall to anti-government forces, which claim — with the help of defecting security forces — to have taken control of nearly the entire eastern half of Libya's 1,000-mile Mediterranean coast, including several oil-producing areas.
Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor in Misurata, said six residents had been killed and 200 wounded since Jan. 18, when protesters attacked offices and buildings affiliated with Gadhafi's regime
Protesters also claimed to have taken over the eastern city of Tobruk, with people taking to the streets to vent their anger at the regime. Clashes broke out over the past two days in the town of Sabratha, west of the capital, where the army and militiamen were trying to put down protesters who overwhelmed security headquarters and government buildings, a news website close to the government reported.
Independent reporting was scarce in much of Libya, but new opposition videos posted on Facebook showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the flag from the pre-Gadhafi monarchy on a building in Zawiya, on the outskirts of the capital. Another showed protesters lining up cement blocks and setting tires ablaze to fortify positions on a square inside the capital.
A provision government was being formed in the eastern city of Bayda.
"Ordinary people, doctors, lawyers, are talking about how we can coordinate with all other cities in Libya who are now under the protesters' control," said Ahmed Jibril, a former diplomat at the Libiyan mission at the U.N.
International outrage mounted after Gadhafi — in a televised address punctuated by anger and fist-pounding — exhorted his supporters to strike back at anti-government protesters as he pledged never to relinquish power.
He promised to have his supporters go "house to house" to hunt down protesters, whom he described as rats and cockroaches.
Celebratory gunfire from Gadhafi supporters rang out in Tripoli after the speech, while people in Benghazi threw shoes at a TV screen to show their contempt.
Gadhafi's address appeared to have brought out a heavy force of supporters and militiamen that largely prevented major protests in the capital Tuesday night or Wednesday. Gunfire rang out through the night, one woman who lives near downtown told The Associated Press.
"Mercenaries are everywhere with weapons. You can't open a window or door. Snipers hunt people," she said. "We are under siege, at the mercy of a man who is not a Muslim.''
During the day Wednesday, more gunfire was heard near Gadhafi's residence, but in many parts of the city of 2 million, residents were venturing out to stores, some residents said. The government sent out text messages urging people to go back to their jobs, aiming to show that life was returning to normal. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed that information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
As the fighting in Libya intensified, streams of people continued to flee the country. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said thousands of people have crossed into Tunisia. The initial escapees consisted mostly of Tunisians who had been working in Libya, but more and more Libyans were leaving, the refugee agency said.
The Tunisian military sent extra troops to its border with Libya. U.N. officials in Tunis told NPR that the purpose of the reinforcement was mainly to provide humanitarian assistance.
"Situation is not good. It's very bad. It's very bad," said Mohammed Abdu, an Egyptian, who crossed from Libya into Tunisia. "All the night, every day, all the night, we hear, da, da, da–da, da, da. I don't sleep from three days ago."
The Tunisians who were crossing the border said they were singled out for harsh treatment by Gadhafi's police, who blamed them for starting the trouble. Two Tunisian men whipped off their shirts and showed purple bruises across their backs, where they said they were beaten.
At the Egyptian border, guards had fled, and local tribal elders formed local committees to take their place. "Welcome to the new Libya," graffiti spray-painted at the crossing proclaimed. Fawzy Ignashy, a former soldier now in civilian clothes at the border, said that early in the protests, some commanders ordered troops to fire on protesters, but then tribal leaders stepped in and ordered them to stop.
"They did because they were from here. So the officers fled," he said.
More than a dozen countries — including Russia, China, Germany and Ukraine — sent planes to help their people escape an increasingly unstable situation.
Hundreds of Americans boarded a 600-passenger ferry at Tripoli's As-shahab port Wednesday for a five-hour crossing of the Mediterranean to Malta. Others, such as Kathleen Burnett of Baltimore, Ohio, managed to get a seat on one of the few flights out of Libya. As she stepped off the airplane in Vienna, Burnett described the scene she left behind as "total chaos."
"The airport was mobbed; you wouldn't believe the number of people," Burnett said.
Britain was chartering flights and positioning a Royal Navy frigate off the Libyan coast in case it's needed to assist in the evacuations. Turkey has already pulled out thousands of its citizens by sea and air.
International alarm has risen over the crisis, pushing oil prices to a 28-month high of $100 a barrel on Wednesday.
"The violence is abhorrent, it is completely unacceptable and the bloodshed must stop," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she's working with others in the international community to help end the bloodshed, adding everything is on the table.
"We will look at all the possible options to try to bring an end to the violence, to try to influence the government," she said.
But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley seemed to rule out one possibility: a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan planes and helicopters from attacking civilians.
Nonessential U.S. diplomats and families of embassy workers were ordered out of the country Monday, but it took until Wednesday to put 35 of them on a ferry, along with other Americans and foreign nationals.
Crowley said the ferry was delayed, in part because Libyan authorities had to stamp the passports of everyone leaving. He said the U.S. has also had trouble getting charter flights to Libya.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who wouldn't rule out the possibility of sending in military flights without permission to evacuate British nationals, expressed deep concern about British oil sector workers who live in the Libyan desert.
"These camps are remote, they are isolated, they are scattered over a large distance, they are dependent for food or water on supplies from Libyan cities that have been severely disrupted by the violence and unrest and some we know have been subjected to attacks and looting," he said. "They are in a perilous and frightening situation."
The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Tuesday that ended with a statement condemning the crackdown, expressing "grave concern" and calling for an "immediate end to the violence" and steps to address the legitimate demands of the Libyan people. The U.N. Development Program dropped Gadhafi's daughter, Aisha al-Gadhafi, as a goodwill ambassador Wednesday, citing the crackdown.
Yemeni Lawmakers Quit Ruling Party
Mass uprisings sparked by successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt have ratcheted up pressure on governments across Northern Africa and the Middle East.
In Yemen, thousands of people streamed into a square in the capital, Sanaa, on Wednesday to strengthen anti-government protesters' hold on the area after club-wielding government supporters tried to drive them out. One person was killed and at least 12 injured in the clashes late Tuesday near Sanaa University, medics said. A local human rights group said two people were killed and 18 hurt.
In the port city of Aden, medics said a 19-year-old man died from injuries during clashes last week. Thirteen demonstrators have been killed since the crisis began nearly a month ago.
Seven legislators in President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ruling party resigned from the group Wednesday, citing the country's precarious political situation. Parliament member Abdul-Aziz Jabbari said they planned to form their own independent bloc. With the latest resignations, nine legislators have quit Saleh's Congress Party since protests began earlier this month.
U.S.-backed Saleh, who has held power for 32 years, has said he will step down after national elections are held in 2013. But a widening protest movement demands that he leave office now.
Kings Of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia Discuss Unrest
Across the Arabian Peninsula, in Bahrain, thousands of anti-government protesters marched in the capital Wednesday after King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa freed at least 100 political prisoners, an acknowledgment of the mounting pressure being placed on him by the Shiite opposition.
Tens of thousands of protesters have flooded the tiny kingdom's capital, Manama, calling for the fall of the Sunni dynasty that rules majority-Shiite Bahrain. There are concerns that Bahrain's uprising, now in its second week, could spread to Saudi Arabia, which also has a significant Shiite population that has long complained of oppression by Sunni rulers.
Al-Khalifa was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to discuss the popular uprisings with his royal counterpart, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, according to state media.
Abdullah had just returned home after three months of medical treatment to face a country that has been dramatically changed by revolutions sweeping the Middle East. More than ever before, Saudis are publicly calling for political reforms, on the Web, in Facebook groups and in political forums across the country.
Ahead of his arrival in Riyadh, Abdullah announced a hefty package of giveaways including unemployment benefits and billions to help Saudis buy homes.