More skirmishes in Libya as U.S., Europe ratchet up pressure

By Leila Fadel, Anthony Faiola and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 28, 2011; 3:50 PM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi carried out airstrikes and skirmished with rebels in parts of Libya on Monday, as European and U.S. officials took steps to pressure the longtime leader to resign.

In an interview with Western reporters, Gaddafi said he could not step down because he is not a president or king, and he asserted that there have been no demonstrations against him in the capital, Tripoli, ABC News reported Monday.

"My people love me," ABC's Christiane Amanpour quoted Gaddafi as saying. "They would die for me." She said Gaddafi denied ever using force against his people, accused al-Qaeda of encouraging youths to seize arms from military installations and said he felt betrayed by the United States.

"I'm surprised that we have an alliance with the west to fight al-Qaeda, and now that we are fighting terrorists they have abandoned us," he said. "Perhaps they want to occupy Libya."

Gaddafi called President Obama a "good man" who might have been misinformed about Libya. "The statements I have heard from him must have come from someone else," ABC quoted Gaddafi as saying. "America is not the international police of the world."

Wearing brown tribal garb and sunglasses, the Libyan leader gave the interview at a restaurant on a seaside road in Tripoli, ABC said. Also participating were reporters for the BBC and London's Sunday Times.

In Washington, the Treasury Department announced that it has frozen $30 billion in assets belong to Gaddafi, his relatives and loyalist officials in the largest such action by the United States.

Responding to Gaddafi's assertion that his people love him, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, "He should get out of his tent and see what is really happening in his country."

In Zawiya and Misurata - the two opposition-held cities closest to the capital, Tripoli - rebel forces were reported locked in standoffs with Gaddafi loyalists.

Anti-government forces Misurata, 131 miles east of Tripoli, fired at a helicopter that was trying to attack the antenna of the local radio station Monday, residents said in telephone interviews. The helicopter was armed with missiles but flew away in the direction of Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, farther to the west, after opposition supporters opened fire on it, an eyewitness said.

It was the third time in as many days that helicopters have attempted to attack the antenna or the radio station, the residents said. On Saturday, a helicopter offloaded six to eight soldiers near the site of the radio station in an apparent bid to seize it. But they were attacked by armed regime opponents, who have secured weapons from one of the town's military barracks, residents said. They said the attackers managed to escape, leaving their weapons behind.

Another helicopter that approached the radio antenna on Sunday was chased away by gunfire, a witness said.

Although Misurata was overrun by protesters last Thursday, Gaddafi loyalists are still holding out at an airbase and a barracks on the edge of the city, and there are daily clashes between the two sides, residents said.

In Zawiya, 27 miles west of Tripoli, residents were anticipating a possible attack by pro-regime troops. "Our people are waiting for them to come," one resident, who would not give his full name, told the Associated Press. "And, God willing, we will defeat them."

A helicopter attacked a military weapons depot Monday in Heniya, just outside Ajdabiya, a town about 100 miles south of Benghazi, said Idriss Sharif, an adviser to the management committee in Benghazi.

A fighter pilot from the air force base in Benghazi, an opposition stronghold 630 miles east of the capital, said weapons and ammunition have been moved from storage units in case of a strike on the base. Over the past few days, the air force here has been setting up antiaircraft weapons to protect against airstrikes on this town that has become the center of resistance against Gaddafi's regime.

At 4 p.m. Monday, another airstrike hit just south of the airport, slamming into a weapons depot in Rajma village, an official at the Benina airport outside the city said. It followed an airstrike in the same area about six days ago, the official said. Most of the weapons had already been taken by people in the village, he said. Earlier in the day, fighter jets were circling over the airport but did not strike, the airport official said.

In Washington, Pentagon officials said Monday morning that they are repositioning air and naval assets in the Mediterranean to support plans now under discussion for contingencies ranging from humanitarian assistance to Libya to imposition of a "no-fly zone" to prevent Gaddafi loyalists from carrying out airstrikes.

Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said no decisions have yet been made to take any specific action, and administration officials have said that any move would be made in coordination with international allies. A no-fly zone could utilize U.S. planes flown from bases in Italy or from aircraft carriers stationed offshore from Libya. Lapan said there are no U.S. aircraft carriers currently in the Mediterranean, although two are now in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf area.

In Tripoli's Tajura district, which has been the scene of frequent clashes, mourners leaving the funeral of a person shot last week marched down a main street chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans, a witness said. But they quickly dispersed once a group of government loyalists rushed to the scene.

In Europe, the European Union voted to impose tough sanctions on Libya while Gaddafi remains in office. And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that Gaddafi "must be held accountable" for the brutal crackdown on protesters that, watchdog groups say, has left hundreds - perhaps thousands - dead.

The popular revolt that has already seen Gaddafi's opponents claim the eastern half of the country spread deeper into the west on Sunday, with rock-wielding residents expanding control over key towns even as loyalist forces appeared poised to counterattack or impose blockades.

With his 41-year rule of the nation at large failing, Gaddafi sought to reinforce his position in Tripoli, his stronghold, by literally doling out cash to citizens and vowing huge raises for public workers, residents there said.

Firmly in the hands of the opposition, eastern Libya is moving to form its own interim government centered in the country's second city, Benghazi, and vowing to send a force against Gaddafi in Tripoli. Top opposition organizers, though, were immediately at odds over who would lead the vast portions of Libya outside the government's reach.

At the same time, the scramble to wrest control of the west intensified. In Zawiya, the government faced a humiliating public relations disaster when media on an official tour - initially told that the city remained pro-Gaddafi - chatted with opposition residents who had seized the town, according to reports.

But government tanks were stationed just outside its suburbs, witnesses said, raising the specter of a brutal counteroffensive.

Such a clash was already being waged in Sabratha, closer to the Tunisia border, with numerous reports of armed exchanges between opposition and government forces. In interviews with news agencies, Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, alternately suggested the government was willing to negotiate with protesters while warning the nation was falling into civil war. "The unrest will break up the country just as in Afghanistan," he told broadcaster al-Arabiya.

In an interview with ABC News, his brother, Saadi, was surprisingly candid about the scope of the problem facing the Gaddafi clan, calling the revolts sweeping the Middle East "an earthquake."

"It's a fever," he said. "It's going to spread everywhere. No one can - will stop it."

'There is no food'

Pro-Gaddafi forces, however, still maintained control of the western border with Tunisia, and had set up about 20 checkpoints on the road to Tripoli, with western towns taken over by the opposition in recent days in danger of being cut off from food, medical supplies and fuel, according to Tunisian officials and migrant workers escaping the violence there.

Mohammed Siyam, 24, an Egyptian laborer who arrived at the Tunisian border Sunday morning after fleeing the fighting in Sabratha, said: "There is no food in the shops, there is no rice, no sugar, no bread, no flour. All you can find there is canned foods."

Attempts to ship in aid to opposition-controlled towns near the Tunisian border were being thwarted by Libyan officials. Though aid groups have been in negotiations for several days about sending a large shipment of food and supplies, "the Libyan authorities have now stopped communications about crossing over the border with aid," said Zouhair Chakroun, a doctor with the Tunisian Red Crescent.

The United Nations said on Sunday that more than 100,000 people had already fled the violence in Libya, with most heading for the Tunisian border where thousands of migrant workers from Egypt, Bangladesh, China and other nations were bottlenecking at the cross point.

The flood abruptly increased late Saturday, as Libyan guards still loyal to Gaddafi suddenly allowed a mass of workers to stream in at once, leading to a crush and throng that left dozens wounded and many hundreds forced to sleep in the cold rain.

Tunisian volunteers and army officials were aiding those coming over the border with food, water and emergency medical attention, but the vast majority of migrant workers had been abandoned by their employers and were stranded with few funds to get back to their respective homelands. United Nations and Tunisian officials on Sunday appealed for international aid to help cope with the influx.

Libyan customs guards "burned my passport and took all my money," said Omar Marzgk, 35, an Egyptian painter, huddled down with thousands of others migrant workers on the border and unsure of how they would pay for their passage home. Although he had one item of value - a TV - "I had to give it to the [Libyan] guards to cross the border," he said.

International pressure

Pressure, meanwhile, intensified on Gaddafi internationally as well as domestically, with the United Nations imposing military and financial sanctions while raising the specter that the isolated leader could face charges for crimes against humanity.

Clinton, before departing for a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, repeated the U.S. call for Gaddafi to leave. "We think he must go as soon as possible without further violence and bloodshed," Clinton said. "There will be accountability for the crimes against humanity and war crimes."

But observers were nevertheless recalibrating their calculations of how quickly Gaddafi might fall. Journalists' access to Tripoli has been strictly limited by the Libyan government to a small group of invited journalists from several news organizations that did not include The Washington Post.

But three residents reached by the Post said the city was tense and largely quiet on Sunday.

A supermarket owner there said that 90 percent of the capital was still under the control of Gaddafi and predicted that, without help from opposition territories, the uprising there would be defeated. Military vehicles were roaming the streets, he said, and neighborhood vigilante groups were also patrolling the city.

"People are scared of each other because of what might happen," said the man, who declined to give his name. "You can easily get into trouble."

He added that claims by air force pilots in Benghazi that Mitiga Air Base was in the hands of the opposition were false.

"The air base is in the government's hands and almost all of the capital is in the government's hands," he said. "We need people from Benghazi to come marching in or from the west to help us or Tripoli is in trouble."

Others said it was not that easy. "We can't go to Tripoli, at least not for the foreseeable future," said a leading activist in Benghazi who participated in the uprisings here since Feb. 17. "At the same time, Tripoli can't continue like this, being punished every time they try to do something."

Gaddafi's strong grip on the capital means air strikes on his installations carried out by foreign forces may be needed. "It would stabilize the situation. At least the liberated cities would feel safe," said the Benghazi activist, who asked that his name not be used out of fear that his request for foreign help would endanger him.

"The reality is we don't have equal forces. Gaddafi has the structure, he's organized and he's gaining all the time he needs to launch whatever he wants," he said.

'Tripoli will fall soon'

On Saturday in Benghazi, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Gaddafi's former justice minister, appeared on al-Jazeera and announced the formation of an "interim government" to lead the eastern regions under rebel control. But the move caught others in the opposition by surprise, with some challenging his assumed leadership.

On Sunday, opposition officials in the city announced a new "National Libyan Council" with an as-yet-undecided chief.

"We're going to negotiate - he's not the head of the council," Abdul Hafidh Gogha, a spokesman for the council, said about Jalil's announcement. He stressed that the council was not a government.

With violence raging elsewhere Sunday, some residents in this Mediterranean port city took time out to revel in their newfound freedom after their victory over Gaddafi loyalists on Feb. 21st.

Parents brought their children to the burned-out villa where Gaddafi resided when in town.

"God is great," yelled Mohammed el-Hedi as he walked around it, filming with his camera phone. "I never imagined I could see Gaddafi's house. I was too scared to even walk close by it," he said.

Another man, Abdu Salam Mohammed, 41, explained to his 6-year old son, Jihad, that Gaddafi was "a dictator and he destroyed Libya."

Outside, Qassim Senussi surveyed the burned building with a smile. "God willing," he said, "Tripoli will fall soon."

Faiola reported from Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Sly reported from Cairo. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Ras Jdir also contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company