Gaddafi refuses to cede power; protesters win backing of defectors

A protester displays a mortar shell found after troops loyal to Gaddafi attacked a munitions store last weekend in Tobruk.
A protester displays a mortar shell found after troops loyal to Gaddafi attacked a munitions store last weekend in Tobruk. (Asmaa Waguih)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SANAA, YEMEN - Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi defiantly vowed Tuesday to "fight until the last drop of my blood" to maintain his 41-year hold on power, and he called on supporters to reclaim control after a week of rebellion that has left his government's authority in tatters.

Facing a violent popular revolt backed by high-level defections, Gaddafi cast an ominous tone in a 70-minute address, referring to China's forceful response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests to suggest that his regime, too, would use as much force as necessary to stay in power.

"I will not leave the country," Gaddafi declared in the rambling televised speech, delivered from the remains of a presidential palace destroyed in a 1986 U.S. air raid. "I will die as a martyr at the end." He showed no remorse for attacks launched by his loyalists against his citizens, vowing instead to "cleanse Libya house by house."

With rebels apparently controlling much of the eastern half of the country, the violence engulfing Libya is already the worst in more than a month of unrest that has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt as it has spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Libya's military and security forces have used jets and helicopters to fight back, roiling world oil and stock markets with the prospect of disruptions in a major oil supplier.

The United States and the United Nations condemned the Libyan leader's use of military force against his citizens, with the Obama administration employing its strongest language yet to condemn the 68-year-old. But some long-standing allies came to Gaddafi's defense, with Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega phoning to help counsel him through his country's "moment of tension.''

With the Internet and other communications limited and outside journalists and observers denied access, information came mostly through secondhand reports from residents reached by phone or from people leaving Libya across its eastern border with Egypt.

Still, the consistent picture was of a country in disarray, with major oil regions now under opposition control, seaports closed, major tribes preparing for armed conflict, and intense clashes taking place in the capital, Tripoli. Residents for a second day reported seeing African troops they described as mercenaries and said they were killing civilians and firing guns into the air.

Reports of the number of dead range as high as 500 over several days of clashes, many of them in and around the coastal city of Benghazi, in eastern Libya, whose powerful tribal leaders have long bridled under Gaddafi's rule. The estimates have come from opposition groups and from human rights organizations that say they are based on reports from doctors and hospitals inside Libya.

Nations, including the United States, were working to evacuate their embassy workers and others from the country. The State Department announced Tuesday night that it would evacuate U.S. citizens by ferry from Tripoli to Malta, beginning Wednesday.

At the Libyan Embassy in Sweden, diplomats allowed protesters to raise the flag of the deposed Libyan monarchy for the first time since Gaddafi took power in 1969.

Gaddafi delivered his address wearing a traditional brown turban and cloak, along with his trademark sunglasses. He seemed intent on convincing Libyans and the world that he remained in control of the country, even as defections within his regime continued to build.

Branding the opposition as "rats," Gaddafi urged his supporters to "chase them" and hand them over to the security forces.

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