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Qaddafi Holds Tripoli as Eastern Cities Fall to Opponents

Demonstrators demand the removal of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi.  John Moore/Getty Images
Demonstrators demand the removal of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi. John Moore/Getty Images

Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi consolidated control over cities in the oil-rich east while he clamped down on Tripoli, using tanks to block highways and security forces to attack residents, witnesses said.

Foreign governments began discussing possible intervention and stepped up efforts to extract their citizens from what fleeing Egyptians said is turning into a bloodbath. Egyptians returning through a Libyan checkpoint now in the hands of Qaddafi’s opponents told of his supporters, most of them foreign mercenaries, attacking anyone in the capital who was on the streets.

“It’s a massacre in there,” Mohamed Yehia, 23, said today after entering the Egyptian border town of Salloum. “He is crazy. The world must know what he’s doing to his people.”

The unrest in Africa’s third-biggest oil producer sent crude advancing for a sixth day, with Brent reaching a 30-month high of almost $120 in London. Stocks slid, with the Stoxx 600 capping its longest losing streak in almost five months. Markets are responding to concern that crude supplies may be further affected if the struggle against Qaddafi becomes more protracted or violent, possibly leading to civil war. Barclays Capital estimated that about 1 million barrels of daily oil production may have been cut.

Protesters’ Complaints

Protesters in Libya and elsewhere in the region have been driven by a combination of economic complaints such as high prices and scarce jobs, and the repression of political and civil rights by leaders in power for decades. Qaddafi has led Libya since coming to power in a military coup in 1969. He refers to himself as “leader and guide of the revolution,” saying in a Feb. 22 speech that because he isn’t a president or head of state, he can’t step down.

The border crossing at Salloum swelled with people trying to escape the growing violence, including thousands of Egyptians as well as 400 Chinese citizens transported by their government from Libya in buses.

“The mercenaries are in the streets and they’re killing anyone who leaves his house,” said Nabil Abdel Raouf, 35, an Egyptian construction worker who lived in the eastern Libyan town of Derna, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the border. “My brother and cousins have been trying to leave Tripoli for four days, but they’re not able to.”

Egypt’s military said on its Facebook page that more than 25,000 Egyptians left Libya via Salloum as of the morning hours local time. It said three had died, without giving details.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament yesterday there are “credible” reports that 1,000 people have been killed. Human Rights Watch says at least 300 people have died in the 10 days since the crackdown on protesters began.

‘Bloody Struggle’

“The danger is Qaddafi refuses to go, holes up somewhere, and a bloody struggle ensues to dislodge him,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

The violence in Libya quickly surpassed unrest in other Arab countries engulfed by demonstrations as Qaddafi vowed to fight the uprising to his “last drop of blood.” The Libyan leader was last heard from publicly on the night of Feb. 22, in which he called the protesters “rats” and “cockroaches,” warning them to stay off the streets and reading a litany of offenses that would justify the death penalty. State television said he would speak again today.

“Civil war is most likely unless someone assassinates Qaddafi,” said Robert Baer, a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officer and author of several books on the Middle East. The ruler’s supporters “are going to hold onto a part of the country, an armed force with a lot of money.”

Outside of the capital, and in Libyan diplomatic missions around the world, cracks in the regime were widening.

Tribal Loyalties

The loyalties of tribes in Libya will be crucial in determining the outcome of the fighting, said Ronald Bruce St. John, an analyst at the Foreign Policy in Focus institute and author of “Libya: From Colony to Independence.” In particular, he said, the al-Zuwayyas in the east, the location of much of the country’s oil production, may be instrumental.

“The Zuwayya tribe has come out decrying the oppression of the protesters, and it’s not an empty threat because of where they’re located,” St. John said in a phone interview from his home in New Mexico. “These guys are located around where a lot of the oil comes out, and they’re in a good position to stop oil exports, which they have threatened to do.”

Other tribes, including the Warfalla and Markafa, which were traditionally allied with the Qaddafi tribe, have also switched sides, saying, “We’re not going to participate anymore” with the regime, according to St. John.

Troops Join Opponents

In the east, Qaddafi’s opponents organized committees of civilians to run and defend their cities with the help of troops who deserted his forces. In Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, anti-Qaddafi militias in front of the courthouse were collecting weapons from people who had seized them from army supplies, a local resident said by phone, declining to be identified due to concern over reprisals.

Anti-government protesters appeared to be in control of the entire eastern coastline, Al Jazeera television reported today, as clashes between pro- and anti-government forces broke out in other cities, including Sabha in the southwest, and Sabhatha and Az-Zawiyah, both west of Tripoli.

Major General Suleiman Mahmoud, commander of the Libyan army in Tobruk, told Al Jazeera that his forces have deserted Qaddafi and are siding with local residents. “We are supporting the Libyan people,” he said in a phone interview with the channel. He said Tobruk was peaceful and that residents were organizing themselves.

Won’t ‘Divide Us’

“The possibility of civil war only exists if Qaddafi stays,” Mohammed Ali Abdallah, deputy head of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main exiled opposition group, said today.

Nuri al-Mismari, Qaddafi’s former protocol chief, told Al Jazeera today, “He is trying to divide us so that he can be in power but this will not happen.”

Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, Qaddafi’s second-oldest son, denied on state television today reports that warplanes had been used in attacks. One of his brothers, Saadi, in an interview in the London-based Financial Times, contradicted him, saying ships and aircraft had been used to bombard ammunition depots in Benghazi. The New York Times cited a military officer as saying three Libyan naval ships were ordered to sail to Benghazi and attack it, and that the crews were stalled because they were torn over what to do.


Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Kayem warned on state television late yesterday that al-Qaeda was behind killings in Benghazi. He said the group had established an “emirate” in the city of Derna and would attack Europe if not stopped.

The SITE Monitoring Group, which checks the websites of Islamic militant groups, said yesterday that al-Qaeda’s North African arm, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, expressed solidarity with anti-government forces in Libya and urged Muslims everywhere to support the uprising. “We will do whatever we can to help,” SITE quoted the group as saying.

More than a dozen Libyan envoys have resigned since the uprising began on Feb. 17, including Libya’s chief diplomats to the United Nations and to the U.S., and world leaders have begun to join Libyans defecting from the regime in calling for international intervention.

Obama, Clinton

President Barack Obama said he’s sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Feb. 28 to meet with other foreign ministers to work on a coordinated response.

“The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous” and those responsible must be held accountable, Obama said after meeting with Clinton at the White House.

Italy’s Frattini said he feared there will be as many as 300,000 refugees if the unrest becomes a civil war. The European Union said it was suspending talks on smoothing relations with Libya and “is ready to take further measures” against the North African nation.

“My question right now would be to Colonel Qaddafi, ‘What on earth do you think you are doing? Stop it,’” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in a question-and-answer-session on Al Jazeera today. Sanctions will “have to be looked at” if the violence continues, Cameron told the BBC. “Britain, with her allies, should be looking at all of the options for the future.”

‘Too Many Questions’

Jan Techau, an analyst at NATO Defense College in Rome, said today that while foreign powers would use their militaries to evacuate citizens, armed intervention in Libya was unlikely.

“This would be a difficult operation and would require a fairly large number of troops,” he said. “How do you get out? The fog of war is extremely dangerous and there are just too many questions.”

Evacuations have been complicated by the closing of all airports in Libya except Tripoli’s and by obstruction by Libyan authorities, who have denied requests for extra flights and prevented evacuees from boarding ships.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that Libya denied requests for extra flights to evacuate Turks from the country, prompting Turkey to begin the biggest sea evacuation in its history. Turkey has repatriated 5,516 of its estimated 25,000 citizens from Libya so far, his ministry said today.

An aircraft that landed in Tripoli yesterday was prevented from picking up Irish nationals by Libyan security, the Irish government said in an e-mailed statement.

China hired four passenger ships from Greece and Malta and 100 buses from Egypt to move 4,600 of its estimated 30,000 nationals away from the violence, its Foreign Ministry said.

U.K. Evacuation

Overnight, Cameron ordered a Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules to fly from Malta to Tripoli to collect remaining British citizens from the city. Two planes left Tripoli, with a third to follow, carrying at least 260 people, the Foreign Office said.

Libya is the latest regime in the region to experience a popular uprising following the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt. Demonstrations have also occurred in Yemen and Bahrain, prompting Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, to introduce moves intended to increase living standards. King Abdullah yesterday announced at least $11 billion in spending increases on social security and housing.

Libya, with a population of about 6.3 million, pumps 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, selling most of it to Europe, according to Bloomberg estimates. That’s about 1.8 percent of world supply. It’s the third-biggest producer in Africa after Nigeria and Angola, while Libyan reserves of 44.3 billion barrels are the continent’s largest, according to BP Plc’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

To contact the reporters on this story: Benjamin Harvey in Istanbul at; Maram Mazen in Salloum, Egypt, at; Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at

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