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Gaddafi's son denies crackdown; loyalists reportedly continue attacks
"Oh Moammar, dictator, it's your turn now," people chanted.
There was ample evidence of recent fighting in Baida. Buildings on Revolution Street were pocked with bullet holes. At La Braq Airport, spent ammunition from rifles and antiaircraft rounds littered the ground. Civilians and defected soldiers climbed on tanks and blocked the runways to stop planes from landing - a precaution, residents said, after people were gunned down last week by purported mercenaries flown in from elsewhere in Africa.
The ability of the rebels to swiftly push west suggested that Libya's powerful tribes, long a beneficiary of Gaddafi's patronage, were turning against him. In recent days, tribal leaders have declared their support for the opposition after Gaddafi's use of warplanes and helicopter gunships to kill hundreds of protesters.
Indeed, the eastern tribes have long complained of being denied a share of Libya's wealth and resources, and eastern cities such as Benghazi have been bastions of opposition. Such grievances led to a revolt in the 1990s and underpinned the ongoing rebellion that began in Benghazi last week, in a country of as many as 140 tribes.
The east's al-Zuwayya tribe threatened to shut down oil production unless authorities stopped the "oppression of the protesters." The Warfala, one of the country's biggest and most influential tribes, has also reportedly joined the opposition. The tribe controls areas around Tripoli.
"We are seeing more and more tribal defections. A lot of police and military in Tobruk, Benghazi and other eastern cities defected because their tribal leaders had ordered them," Ronald Bruce St. John, an author and expert on Libya, said in a telephone interview. "I think you will see more and more in western Libya."
So far, St. John said, it appears that the major tribes in and around Tripoli continue to support Gaddafi.
The signs of a widening rebellion in eastern Libya came as more senior military commanders and government officials defected. The Libyan newspaper Quryna reported that an air force pilot bailed out of his Soviet-made warplane and allowed it to crash rather than following an order to bomb Benghazi.
Residents of Tripoli said a sense of fear pervaded the capital.
"We have been indoors for the past three days," said Rahma, a Libyan American reached by telephone, who insisted that her last name not be used to avoid any retribution. "Tripoli is like a ghost town, as if nobody exists here."
She said her father, also a U.S. citizen, had been detained during an anti-government demonstration a few days ago in front of Tripoli's courthouse and was being held at a hospital on a military base. She said she fears for his safety after listening to Gaddafi's speech, in which he threatened to execute anyone going against the regime.
"We don't know what's going to happen to him," Rahma said.
She said two sons of a neighbor were killed at a protest. The next day, Rahma said, the neighbor placed a green Libyan national flag by her house to show support for Gaddafi and avoid being targeted by his loyalists.
Londono reported from Cairo. Wilgoren reported from Washington. Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan contributed reporting from Sanaa, Yemen. Staff writer Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.