Military helicopters reportedly fire on protesters in Libya
Monday, February 21, 2011; 4:18 PM
SANAA, YEMEN - Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's regime showed more signs of crumbling Monday as scores of people were reportedly killed in the capital, witnesses said military helicopters shot at protesters on the ground, and the U.S. ordered non-essential diplomats to leave the North African nation.
The six-day-old uprising had reached the capital, Tripoli, by Monday morning, with reports of buildings being set ablaze and looting in some neighborhoods. In Libya's second-largest city of Benghazi in the eastern part of the country, anti-government demonstrators celebrated on the streets, with reports growing that the city was now under their control.
Faiz Jibril, an opposition leader in exile, said that his contacts inside Libya have told him that eastern Libya has been liberated from pro-Gaddafi forces. He said helicopter gunships were striking protesters in Tripoli, where thousands have gathered in Green Square. The military was also conducting air-strikes on protesters walking from Misruata, which protesters took over, to Tripoli, he said.
Gaddafi's son and heir-apparent declared in a televised speech early Monday that the North African nation could fall into anarchy if his father was ousted.
The U.S. State Department ordered all non-essential diplomats and embassy family members to leave the country. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held an "extensive conversation" with Gaddafi and emphasized the violence "must stop immediately," the U.N. said in a statement. Libya's ambassadors to the U.N. called for Gaddafi to step down.
Both the Libyan deputy foreign minister and President Hugo Chavez's government denied reports that Gaddafi was travelling to Venezuela.
The reports that Gaddafi had abandoned Libya were fueled by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said he had seen "information to suggest" Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela, where he has an ally in Chavez.
But the Venezuelan government said that Gadhafi remained in Tripoli, "exercising the powers given to him by the state," according to a statement issued by Andres Izarra, Venezuela's minister of communications. Izarra said that Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro spoke by telephone Monday afternoon with his Libyan counterpart, Moussa Koussa, who was at the government's central offices in Tripoli.
Koussa told Maduro that Gadhafi was "facing the situation" in Libya.
Tribal leaders railed against Gaddafi while reports swirled of soldiers defecting from their units to the opposition. There were also reports of senior Libyan officials resigning from their posts, outraged by the killings carried out by security forces.
Reuters reported that two Libyan Air Force fighter pilots defected on Monday and flew their jets to Malta where they told authorities they had been ordered to bomb protesters.
At least 61 people had been killed in the protests overnight in Tripoli, al-Jazeera television reported, quoting medical sources. It also reported that security forces were looting banks and other government building in Tripoli, that protesters had ransacked several police stations and that military aircraft on Monday fired on protesters. Protesters also set ablaze the building used by Libya's parliament when it is in session, Reuters reported.