By Leila Fadel, Ernesto Londono and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 8:12 AM
BAIDA, LIBYA - Moammar Gaddafi's son denied Thursday that Libya has killed large numbers of protesters through airstrikes and other attacks, while a former top Gaddafi aide said he quit the government to protest its violent crackdown.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Gaddafi's son, disputed the death tolls that have have been reported since the protests began 10 days ago, saying allegations that hundreds have been killed are a "joke."
"Tripoli is quiet," he said in an interview aired on Libyan state television. "Life is normal."
The junior Gaddafi said Libya intends to provide Western journalists on Friday access to Tripoli, the capital, and other cities, so they can corroborate the government's claim that the country remains under Gaddafi's control.
The U.S. State Department issued a warning to Western journalists who have entered Libya in recent days without government permission. Citing information received from top Libyan officials, the warning said some members of CNN, BBC Arabic and al-Arabiya would be allowed into the country, but any reporters not approved by the government as part of that effort would be considered al-Qaeda "collaborators."
"The Libyan government said that it was not responsible for the safety of these journalists, who risked immediate arrest on the full range of possible immigration charges," the State Department warning said.
Libya appears dangerously fractured, with Gaddafi's regime intent on fighting but its authority beyond Tripoli in doubt. The longtime ruler has tightened his grip on the capital, witnesses say, by flooding the streets with militiamen and loyalist troops who were reportedly roaming the streets and shooting opponents from SUVs.
Rebels who launched an uprising last week have consolidated their control of key eastern cities, however, and continued advancing west across the coastal strip, where most of the country's population is clustered. The opposition has called for a large protest Friday.
In the city of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, an army unit attacked a mosque where protesters had been stationed for several days, a witness told the Associated Press. The soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons and hit the mosque's minaret with anti-aircraft missiles, the witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
He told the AP there were casualties, but couldn't provide exact figures. Some of the young men among the protesters had hunting rifles, he said. He said a day earlier an envoy from Gaddafi had come to the city and warned protesters, "Either leave or you will see a massacre."
"What is happening is horrible, those who attacked us are not the mercenaries; they are sons of our country," the witness said, sobbing. After the assault, thousands massed in the city's main Martyrs Square, shouting "leave, leave," in reference to Gaddafi, he said.
The other attack came at a small airport outside Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, where rebels claimed control on Wednesday, AP reported. Militiamen on Thursday attacked a line of residents who were protecting the facility, opening fire with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, said a resident who saw the assault
"They left piles of human remains and swamp of blood," the resident told the Associated Press. "The hospitals are packed with those killed and injured."
In Cairo, a cousin and close adviser to Gaddafi said he had defected from the regime to protest its crackdown on the uprising, the Associated Press reported. Gadhaf al-Dam, who arrived in Egypt several days ago, is a member of the Libyan leader's inner circle, handling Libyan-Egyptian relations.
Dam said in a statement that the crackdown has seen "grave violations to human rights and human and international laws," AP reported. He said he left Libya "in protest and to show disagreement."
Oil prices hit $100 a barrel because of the turmoil in the North African oil exporter, a peak not reached since 2008. In Washington and other capitals, attention turned to the possible responses to the crackdown, including economic sanctions or imposition of a no-flight zone over Libya to prevent the use of aircraft against civilians.
In Washington, President Obama said the United States was developing a "full range of options" and would intensify discussions with other nations to address the violent unraveling of Gaddafi's regime.
"The suffering and bloodshed are outrageous and unacceptable," Obama said. The Libyan government "must be held accountable for its failure . . . and face the cost of continued violations of human rights."
But enormous questions remained about whether any foreign powers could wield the influence necessary to head off Libya's dizzying plunge into disorder, much less persuade Gaddafi to reconsider his vow to fight to the death in defense of his 41-year-old regime.
The independent organization Human Rights Watch has estimated that 300 people have been killed in a week of clashes, although some Libyan opposition groups and Western diplomats have said that they fear the figure may be much larger.
A 600-passenger ferry chartered by the U.S. government was in Libya to evacuate U.S. citizens to the nearby island of Malta, but its departure has been delayed by turbulent weather.
Residents reached by telephone in Tripoli on Wednesday said Gaddafi's loyalists appeared to have reclaimed control of the capital after several days of skirmishes. Stores and offices were shut down, the residents said, while blue-uniformed militiamen set up checkpoints and regime loyalists cleaned up graffiti calling for him to step down.
But opposition groups appeared to have taken control of cities across a broad swath of northern Libya that stretched hundreds of miles from Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, to as far as Misurata, 120 miles east of the capital. The loosely organized opposition protected key roads and government installations, with men in fluorescent orange vests patrolling the area, armed with sticks or rocket-propelled grenades.
A state-run radio station previously known as Eastern Radio was under the control of opposition groups, which renamed it Free Radio. In and around Baida, along the northern coast west of Tobruk, the once-omnipresent portraits of Gaddafi had been ripped down or burned.
"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.