Khadafy refuses to step down

As defections rise, he rallies backers

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By Leila Fadel, Sudarsan Raghavan, and William Branigin
Washington Post / February 23, 2011

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TOBRUK, Libya — Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy vowed yesterday to “die as a martyr’’ in his country rather than surrender power, as he sought to rally supporters against a growing popular uprising that has taken over much of eastern Libya and won the backing of some army units and government officials.

In a defiant, rambling speech in the capital, Tripoli, the army colonel who has ruled the North African nation for nearly 42 years appealed to supporters to take to the streets by the millions “in order to cleanse Libya, home by home, village by village,’’ of what he described as a misguided movement inspired by foreigners.

But in a sign that his exhortations were falling on deaf ears, Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younis, the commander of a powerful commando brigade and one of Khadafy’s closest associates, announced his defection in the protester-held city of Benghazi and urged other military units to join the revolt, the Associated Press reported.

Khadafy’s justice minister also has defected, along with several ambassadors, including the Libyan ambassador to the United States.

The defections of police, border guards, and soldiers were evident on Libya’s eastern border with Egypt, where reporters were welcomed into the country yesterday without visa procedures or passport controls. Young defectors showed cellphone videos of repression in the eastern Libyan towns of Baida and Benghazi, where they said African mercenaries hired by Khadafy shot scores of men, women, and children. They told of rapes, looting, and killings over the past week.

Most said they left their posts when relatives or neighbors were killed in what they described as massacres of demonstrators in eastern towns and the capital following a popular revolt that started Feb. 15.

Defecting army units have helped the protesters claim control of nearly the entire eastern half of Libya’s 1,000-mile Mediterranean coast, including several major oil fields, the Associated Press said.

Younis, who had backed the 1969 coup that brought Khadafy to power, said in a prepared statement that he has resigned all of his posts out of conviction that the protesters have “just demands.’’

Among the diplomats who also have resigned was Ali al-Essawi, the Libyan ambassador to India. He charged yesterday that the government had used fighter jets to bomb civilians and had hired foreign mercenaries to shoot protesters.

Human Rights Watch said nearly 300 people have been killed, according to a partial count, some of them reportedly in a rampage by pro-Khadafy militiamen who shot from vehicles at people in the streets and in their homes.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the violence and demanded that the Libyan government end it. She told reporters at the State Department yesterday that the “entire international community’’ agrees that “the violence must stop, and the government of Libya has a responsibility to respect the universal rights of all of its citizens.’’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Khadafy’s speech “very, very appalling’’ and said it amounted to “declaring war on his own people.’’

Meanwhile, Libya’s growing crisis was spreading anxiety about the security of the OPEC member’s approximately 1.2 million barrels a day of oil exports, driving up crude oil prices on world markets.

In his speech in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, Khadafy urged supporters to “get out of your homes and fill the streets,’’ and he exhorted them to attack those he said wanted to destroy Libya. He insisted he cannot resign, since he has no official title. In a televised appearance earlier yesterday, the erratic ruler held an umbrella out the door of a car and told an interviewer, “I am here to show that I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela.’’

In Benghazi, residents said Libya’s second-largest city was under the control of the protesters and that the streets were calm. Military leaders, police, and other security units there appeared to be supporting the opposition. Citizens were on the streets protecting their neighborhoods.

There was a collective sense of euphoria in Benghazi, residents said in telephone interviews. They described a sense that they had triumphed over Khadafy and were no longer under his thumb. Some were no longer afraid to give their names in interviews.

“This is free Libya,’’ said Amal Bugaigis, 50, a lawyer. “Security forces and the people in Benghazi are together. We are now one. . . . There is no more Khadafy.’’

In Tripoli, there were conflicting reports on the situation. Some residents described their neighborhoods as war zones, with foreign mercenaries and Khadafy loyalists driving around in SUVs and military trucks, shooting protesters and firing guns in the air. They said that many government buildings were set on fire, that security forces protected the national television station, and that many residents remained inside their houses.

Others said their neighborhoods were calm and that they had not seen any attacks by warplanes or helicopter gunships.

As the longtime leader’s speech was being broadcast, Libyan national television showed images of hundreds of Khadafy supporters in the capital’s central Green Square waving flags. Residents said the supporters took over the square late Monday after Khadafy’s militias opened fire on antigovernment protesters there.

In his disjointed, fist-pounding speech, Khadafy, 68, charged that youthful demonstrators against his regime were “manipulated’’ by people from neighboring Tunisia, where massive protests last month chased the entrenched president from power. He showed no regret for his security forces’ violent crackdown against the demonstrators, at one point reading from a green-covered book that listed the death penalty for various crimes against the state.

“It is not possible that I leave this place,’’ he said. “I will die as a martyr at the end.’’ He described himself as “a fighter, a revolutionary from tents,’’ but denied responsibility for the violence even as he issued a warning.

“I have not yet ordered the use of force, not yet ordered one bullet to be fired,’’ he said. “When I do, everything will burn.’’

Wearing a brown turban and cloak, Khadafy spoke from the lobby of his bombed-out former residence, which was struck in a 1986 airstrike by US and British warplanes in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque by Libyan agents.

“We defied America from here,’’ he declared. “We defied the world atomic powers. . . . We became victorious.’’ Referring to the 1969 military coup that brought him to power, Khadafy said: “The revolution means sacrifice all the time until the end of life.’’

With the UN convening an emergency meeting on Libya and the Arab League planning to weigh in as well, Khadafy’s crackdown appeared to be fast eroding whatever support had existed for his government.

In Washington, Libya’s ambassador to the United States said he would “resign from serving the current dictatorship.’’

“This regime is shaking, and this is the time to get rid’’ of Khadafy, Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.’’ top stories on Twitter

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