CAIRO — Heavy gunfire broke out in Tripoli as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi tightened their grip on the Libyan capital while anti-government protesters claimed control of many cities elsewhere and top government officials and diplomats turn against the longtime leader.
While residents of cities in the eastern half of the country celebrated, raising the flags of the old monarchy, the mood in Tripoli was bleak. Residents were afraid to leave their houses, saying pro-Gadhafi forces were opening fire randomly in the streets.
International outrage mounted a day after Gadhafi vowed to defend his rule and called on supporters to crack down on anti-government protesters. Gadhafi's retaliation has already been the harshest in the Arab world to the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East.
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
The fighting in Tripoli came as the opposition reportedly seized control of Misrata, with witnesses saying people were honking their horns and raising pre-Gadhafi flags from the monarchy to celebrate.
Misrata would be the first major city in the west to fall to anti-government forces, which have mainly been concentrated in the east. Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor, said six residents had been killed and 200 injured since Feb. 18, when protesters attacked offices and buildings affiliated with Gadhafi's regime.
He said residents had formed committees to protect the city, clean the streets and treat the injured.
"The solidarity among the people here is amazing, even the disabled are helping out," he said in a telephone interview.
New videos posted by Libya's opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the flag from the pre-Gadhafi monarchy on a building in Zawiya, on the outskirts of Tripoli. Another showed protesters lining up cement blocks and setting tires ablaze to fortify positions on a square inside the capital.
The footage couldn't be independently confirmed.
Gadhafi defiantly vowed to fight to his "last drop of blood" and roared at supporters to strike back against Libyan protesters to defend his embattled regime Tuesday in a televised speech that served as an all-out call for his backers to impose control over the capital and take back other cities.
After a week of upheaval, protesters backed by defecting army units have claimed control over almost the entire eastern half of Libya's 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) Mediterranean coast, including several oil-producing areas.
"You men and women who love Gadhafi ... get out of your homes and fill the streets," Gadhafi said. "Leave your homes and attack them in their lairs."
Celebratory gunfire by Gadhafi supporters rang out in the capital of Tripoli after the leader's speech, while in protester-held Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, people threw shoes at a screen showing his address, venting their contempt.
A woman who lives near downtown Tripoli said heavy gunfire erupted Wednesday morning as armed Gadhafi backers and mercenaries hired from other countries opened fire on the streets. She said her nephew has been missing since Tuesday.
"He went to join the protests and he didn't come back. The whole family is panicking," she said. "We are under siege."
She said the streets were empty and even injured people couldn't go to the hospital for fear of being shot.
Gadhafi appears to have lost the support of at least one major tribe, several military units and his own diplomats, including Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Adjali, and deputy U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi.
The Libyan Embassy in Austria also condemned the use of "excessive violence against peaceful demonstrators" and said in a statement Wednesday that it was representing the Libyan people.
International alarm has risen over the crisis, which sent oil prices soaring to the highest level in more than two years on Tuesday and sparked a scramble by European and other countries to get their citizens out of the North African nation. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting that ended with a statement condemning the crackdown, expressing "grave concern" and calling for an "immediate end to the violence" and steps to address the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also pressed Wednesday for European Union sanctions against Libya's regime because of its violent crackdown on protesters, and raised the possibility of cutting all economic and business ties between the EU and the North African nation.
"The continuing brutal and bloody repression against the Libyan civilian population is revolting," Sarkozy said in a statement. "The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights."
Italian news reports have said witnesses and hospital sources in Libya are estimating there are 1,000 dead in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, alone.
"We have no complete information about the number of people who have died," Frattini said in a speech to a Catholic organization in Rome ahead of a briefing in Parliament on Libya. "We believe that the estimates of about 1,000 are credible."
Libya is the biggest supplier of oil to Italy, which has extensive energy, construction and other business interests in the north African country and decades of strong ties.
Frattini said the Italian government is asking that the "horrible bloodshed" cease immediately despite Gadhafi's vow to fight on and cling to power.
03/11/2011 6:31 PM EST
U.S. Extends Sanctions On Libya
Reports the AP:
The Obama administration extended its Libya sanctions to more Gadhafi family members and close advisers on Thursday, blacklisting business with the Libyan leader's wife, four of his children and his chief of military intelligence.
The Treasury Department froze the assets of nine Libyans in all as part of the strategy to peel off Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers while punishing those who remain loyal to the regime even as it commits human rights violations.
The sanctions come on top of those previously announced by the administration, which accounted for $32 billion in Libyan government assets blocked in the United States.
03/11/2011 5:33 PM EST
Sarkozy Calls For Air Strikes If Gaddafi Attacks Civilians
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for airstrikes against Gaddafi forces if the leader attacks civilians. According to the Guardian:
Nicolas Sarkozy has called for targeted air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime if his forces use chemical weapons or launch air strikes against civilians.
As the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, warned that a no-fly zone could risk civilian lives in Libya, the French president told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes may soon be justified.
"The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters," Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".
03/11/2011 5:06 PM EST
Dutch Helicopter Crew Freed
A Dutch helicopter crew taken captive in Libya has been freed and sent to Greece. The BBC is reporting:
The two men and one woman arrived in Athens on a Greek military transport plane hours after a son of Muammar Gaddafi announced their release.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said Libya would hold on to the crew's Lynx helicopter.
The woman pilot, Yvonne Niersman, took part in a mission last year to free a German ship from Somali pirates.
Ms Niersman and her fellow crew members were captured in Libya after flying in from the Dutch warship Tromp, anchored off the coast.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 4:43 PM EST
McCain Praises Moroccan King
Senator John McCain praised Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his pledge to introduce democratic reforms. According to the AFP:
"This new reform agenda builds on the king's long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain.
03/11/2011 3:40 PM EST
Gaddafi Offers Amnesty To Rebels
Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi is now offering to offer amnesty to those rebels who lay own arms.
03/11/2011 3:28 PM EST
2 Protesters Killed In Tunisia
The AP reports:
Tunisia's Interior Ministry says a new eruption of violence between police and protesters has killed two people and injured 20.
The ministry says on its Facebook page that police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs.
The statement says two protesters were killed in the incident in Metlaoui, a mining town in the center of the Mediterranean country.
The violence comes as Tunisia's interim government is trying to restore stability after deadly protests that drove out longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That prompted uprisings around the Arab world.
03/11/2011 2:39 PM EST
Berlusconi Says Hardline With Gaddafi A Mistake
Berlusconi is saying that the West may have made a mistake by taking a hardline against Gaddafi, which may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner. Reports Reuters:
The hardline stance taken by major powers against Muammar Gaddafi may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner and prevented a quiet exit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday. Speaking after a special meeting of EU leaders, Berlusconi, one of Gaddafi's closest friends in Europe until the current upheaval, said the chances of persuading him to give up power voluntarily now appeared to have disappeared.
"Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don't think anyone can make him change his mind," he told reporters.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 2:16 PM EST
Who Are The Libyan Rebels?
The AP is reporting that the rebels fighting Gaddafi forces are amateurs, but deeply committed to the cause:
Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country's Mediterranean coast.
"I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar," said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.
The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.
Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.
03/11/2011 1:03 PM EST
Gaddafi Forces Show Signs Of Victory
Reports the AP:
Moammar Gadhafi's regime has gained momentum with the capture of a key city near Tripoli after days of fierce fighting with rebels.
The battle for Zawiya has emerged as a key test in the government's ability to maintain its hold on the Libyan capital and surrounding areas.
The government had claimed victory on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was escorted with other journalists into the city on Friday, says the main square that had been the center of resistance is clearly in government control.
03/11/2011 12:47 PM EST
Obama On Libya
Obama noted all of the sanctions and property seizures that have already been implemented against Gaddafi, saying, "Across the board, we are tightening the noose on Gaddafi." He says that NATO is discussing potential military actions in Libya, including a no-fly zone, and will meet on Tuesday. He said that a position will be created for a liaison to speak with Libyan opposition groups. He said that the international community had moved quickly to isolate Gaddafi.
Obama said that no options have been taken off the table so far. In response to a question about whether it would ever be acceptable to the U.S. for Gaddafi to stay in power, Obama stated that "it is in the U.S.' interest and the interest of the Libyan people for Gaddafi to leave." He added, however, that when making a decision to engage militarily, he would weigh the "costs and benefits."