Military helicopters reportedly fire on protesters in Libya

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.

Ali al-Essawi, Libya's ambassador to India, resigned from his post Monday and called for Gaddafi to step down. He accused the regime of deploying foreign mercenaries against the protesters.

Over the weekend, security forces in Benghazi opened fire on mourners attending funeral marches for 84 protesters killed the day before, their harshest response yet to the recent round of demonstrations. They also swiftly clamped down on smaller uprisings that spread to the outskirts of Tripoli, where protesters seized military bases and weapons.

Unrest across the region

As fresh protests erupted across the Middle East and North Africa over the weekend, embattled leaders in the region struggled to contain their discontented masses, deploying a wide variety of tactics - from offers of dialogue to brutal crackdowns - to suppress the pro-democracy forces unleashed by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

Protests also broke out Sunday in Morocco and Tunisia, posing new challenges to their rulers, while authorities in Iran and Bahrain continued to confront calls for reform.

By late Sunday, the number of those killed in the uprising across Libya had soared to at least 233, most of them in Benghazi, according to Human Rights Watch. Other news reports placed the death toll at 200 or much higher.

U.S. and European Union officials on Sunday condemned Libya's crackdown and called for an end to the violence. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States is "gravely concerned" and has received "multiple credible reports that hundreds of people have been killed and injured." Many of the victims had been killed with machine guns, witnesses said.

The scope of the turmoil in Libya is impossible to verify. Authorities have denied access to foreign journalists and have periodically cut off the Internet and phone lines. But the unfolding situation in Libya could mark the most brutal attempt to suppress the anti-government protests sweeping across the Arab world.

Residents and activists describe a volatile landscape that is increasingly isolated from the world and becoming bloodier and more chaotic by the day. The protesters seek the ouster of Gaddafi, who has ruled for more than four decades.

Gaddafi's son appeared on state television early Monday, saying his father is in the country and backed by the army. "We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet," Seif al-Islam Gaddafi said, warning that if the unrest continues, the country could become engulfed in civil war and Libya's oil wealth "will be burned."

Gaddafi's regime appeared to suffer its first defection Sunday when the country's representative to the Arab League said he had resigned his position, angry about the government's harsh tactics in Benghazi.

"Things are getting progressively worse in western Libya," said one Tripoli resident who spoke via messaging on Skype. "Internet is extremely slow and Web browsing is turned off most of the time. We can't make international calls anymore." The resident added that text messaging "doesn't seem to work either."

EU officials said they will prepare for the possible evacuation of European citizens from Libya, the Associated Press reported Monday. BP also is making evacuation plans for its employees "in the next couple days," spokesman David Nicholas told the AP.

Renewed calls for talks

In Iran, security forces on Sunday violently put down attempted pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran and other cities. But elsewhere in the Middle East, besieged autocrats tried to offer olive branches after violent tactics failed to suppress the anger on their streets and the demands for them to resign.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled this impoverished country for 32 years, renewed his call for political dialogue with the nation's main opposition parties, an approach that could lead to a power-sharing deal. The move followed the deaths of at least five protesters and dozens of injuries in nine straight days of demonstrations, which included clashes between security forces and protesters in the capital and in the southern cities of Taiz and Aden.

"We are ready to respond to their demands if they are legitimate," Saleh told several thousand supporters Sunday in the capital, Sanaa. "Dialogue is the best way. Not sabotage. Not blocking the roads."

Saleh is facing growing pressure from outside and within his fold. At least two lawmakers from his ruling party have resigned in recent days over the violent attempts by security forces and pro-Saleh mobs to put down the protests. On Sunday, thousands demonstrated and held sit-ins in Taiz, Ibb, Aden and Sanaa to demand that Saleh step down, according to local reports and witnesses.

Yemen's main coalition of six opposition parties rejected his call for dialogue, declaring there would be no talks as long as Saleh's loyalists and security forces assault protesters. "There is no dialogue with bullets, batons and acts of thugs," the groups said in an e-mailed statement.

In Bahrain, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa continued to urge a national dialogue with opposition parties and a period of national mourning to reconcile the nation's majority Shiites and their Sunni rulers.

His calls came after Bahrain's security forces violently cracked down on mostly Shiite protesters, leaving six dead after days of unrest. Security forces withdrew Saturday from Manama's Pearl Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations, and protesters retook the area, demanding sweeping political reforms.

The emboldened opposition is now demanding a constitutional monarchy with a directly elected government, potentially weakening the rule of Bahrain's royal family.

Protests in Morocco

As leaders struggled to find a solution to the unrest, thousands took to the streets in cities across Morocco, the first anti-government demonstrations the country has seen since the wave of populist rebellions began. In Casablanca, nearly 2,000 protesters chanted "Freedom, dignity and justice." Many said they were seeking greater economic opportunities, better public services, more freedoms and an end to corruption. While some want constitutional reforms, others called for a new government.

"We have no equality, no liberty and no democracy. We want regime change," said Yahia, a 25-year-old graduate student who would not give his last name.

In Tunisia, thousands of protesters in the capital defied a ban on rallies, demanding a new interim government and calling for allies of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to step down. It was one of the largest protests since a populist uprising toppled Ben Ali last month.

Meanwhile, Egyptians on Sunday saw some signs that normalcy is returning after weeks of strife that culminated in President Hosni Mubarak stepping down Feb. 11. Banks opened Sunday, the start of the business week, for the first time in more than a week. Several museums and other tourist sites also reopened.

Correspondents Janine Zacharia in Manama, Leila Fadel and Ernesto Londoño in Cairo, and Juan Forero in Bogota, special correspondent Gul Tuysuz in Casabalanca, and staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.

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