BENGHAZI, Libya — The scope of Moammar Gadhafi's control was whittled away Wednesday as major Libyan cities and towns closer to the capital fell to the rebellion against his rule. In the east, now all but broken away, the opposition vowed to "liberate" Tripoli, where the Libyan leader is holed up with a force of militiamen roaming the streets and tanks guarding the outskirts.
(SCROLL DOWN FOR LIVE UPDATES.)
In a further sign of Gadhafi's faltering hold, two air force pilots – one from the leader's own tribe – parachuted out of their warplane and let it crash into the eastern Libyan desert rather than follow orders to bomb an opposition-held city.
International momentum was building for action to punish Gadhafi's regime for the bloody crackdown it has unleashed against the uprising that began Feb. 15.
President Barack Obama said the suffering and bloodshed in Libya "is outrageous and it is unacceptable," and he directed his administration to prepare the full range of options to respond.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the possibility of the European Union cutting off economic ties.
Another proposal gaining some traction was for the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent it using warplanes to hit protesters. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that if reports of such strikes are confirmed, "there's an immediate need for that level of protection."
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.
In Tripoli, Gadhafi's stronghold, protest organizers called for new rallies Thursday and Friday, raising the potential for a more bloody confrontation.
Militiamen and Gadhafi supporters – a mix of Libyans and foreign African fighters bused in – roamed the capital's main streets, called up Tuesday night by the Libyan leader in a fist-pounding speech in which he vowed to fight to the death. The gunmen fired weapons in the air, chanting "Long live Gadhafi," and waved green flags. With a steady rain, streets were largely empty, residents said.
In many neighborhoods, residents set up watch groups to keep militiamen out, barricading streets with concrete blocks, metal and rocks, and searching those trying to enter, a Tripoli activist said.
Gadhafi's residence at Tripoli's Aziziya Gates was guarded by loyalists along with a line of armed militiamen in vehicles, some masked, he said. The radio station building downtown was also heavily fortified. In one western neighborhood, security forces stormed several homes and arrested three or four people, a witness said, while tanks were deployed on the eastern outskirts, witnesses in at least one neighborhood said.
"Mercenaries are everywhere with weapons. You can't open a window or door. Snipers hunt people," said another resident, who said she had spent the night in her home awake hearing gunfire outside. "We are under siege, at the mercy of a man who is not a Muslim."
But below the surface, protesters were organizing, said the activist. At night, they fan out and spray-paint anti-Gadhafi graffiti or set fires near police stations, chanting, "The people want the ouster of the regime," before running at the approach of militiamen, he said. The Tripoli residents, like other witnesses around the country, spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.
In opposition-controlled Benghazi, the eastern city where the uprising began, residents held a mass rally outside the city's main courthouse, vowing to support protesters in the capital, said Farag al-Warfali, a banker. They also called a one-day fast in solidarity with them. Afterward, young men went into the courthouse to register to obtain weapons, which had been looted from police stations and military bases and then turned over to the city's new rulers, he said.
The idea is to "take their weapons and march toward Tripoli," al-Warfali said, although Benghazi lies 580 miles (940 kilometers) east of the capital, and territory still loyal to Gadhafi lies between them.
There were similar calls in Misrata – several hours' drive from Tripoli, the closest major city to the capital to fall to anti-government forces. A mosque called residents to come to "jihad," or holy war, in support of the protesters, said one resident, Iman.
"We are going to join forces with our brothers in Tripoli," she said.
The extent of Gadhafi's control over the country he has ruled for 41 years had been reduced to the western coastal region around Tripoli, the deserts to the south and parts of the center.
After Gadhafi's speech Tuesday night, militiamen flooded into Sabratha, a town west of Tripoli famed for nearby ancient Roman ruins, and battled protesters who had taken over, said one resident. Around 5,000 militiamen from neighboring towns, backed by army and police units, clashed with protesters and drove them from the streets, he said.
But his territory was being eroded.
The opposition said Wednesday it had taken over Misrata, Libya's third-largest city.
Residents honked horns in celebration and raised the pre-Gadhafi flags of the Libyan monarchy after several days of fighting that drove militiamen from the city, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli, said Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor. He said six people had been killed and 200 wounded in clashes that began Feb. 18.
Residents had formed committees to clean the streets, protect the city and treat the wounded, he said. "The solidarity among the people here is amazing, even the disabled are helping out."
An audio statement posted on the Internet reportedly from armed forces officers in Misrata proclaimed "our total support" for the protesters.
New videos posted by Libya's opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the pre-Gadhafi flag on a building in Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli. The city is located near a key oil port and refineries on the Mediterranean. The footage couldn't be independently confirmed.
Protesters were also in control in Zwara, a town about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Tunisian border in the west, after local army units sided with the protesters and police fled, said one resident, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate. "This man (Gadhafi) has reached the point that he's saying he will bring armies from Africa (to fight protesters). That means he is isolated," he said.
Gadhafi long kept his army weak and divided for fear of challenge, so in the fierce crackdown his regime has waged on the uprising, he has relied on militia groups, beefed up by fighters hired abroad. Meanwhile, army units in many places have sided with the rebellious protesters.
On Wednesday, two air force pilots jumped from parachutes from their Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet and let it crash, rather than carry out orders to bomb opposition-held Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, the website Qureyna reported, citing an unidentified officer in the air force control room.
One of the pilots – identified by the report as Ali Omar Gadhafi – was from Gadhafi's tribe, the Gadhadhfa, said Farag al-Maghrabi, who saw the pilots and the wreckage of the jet, which crashed in the desert outside the key oil port of Breqa, about 440 miles (710 kilometers) east of Tripoli.
Protesters and the mutinous army units that have joined them were consolidating their hold on nearly the entire eastern half of the 1,000-mile Mediterranean coastline, stretching from the Egyptian border to Ajdabiya, about 480 miles (800 kilometers) east of Tripoli, encroaching on key oil fields around the Gulf of Sidra.
Across their territory, they have been setting up their own administrations. In many places, committees organized by residents, tribes and mutinous army officers were governing, often collecting weapons looted from pro-Gadhafi troops to prevent chaos.
"There is now an operating room for the militaries of all the liberated cities and they are trying to convince the others to join them," said Lt. Col. Omar Hamza, an army officer who had allied with the rebels in Tobruk. "They are trying to help the people in Tripoli to capture Gadhafi."
At the Egyptian border, guards had fled, and local tribal elders have formed local committees to take their place. "Welcome to the new Libya," proclaimed graffiti spray-painted at the crossing. Fawzy Ignashy, a former soldier now in civilian clothes at the border, said that early in the protests, some commanders ordered troops to fire on protesters, but tribal leaders stepped in and ordered them to stop.
"They did because they were from here. So the officers fled," he said.
A defense committee of residents was even guarding one of Gadhafi's once highly secretive anti-aircraft missile bases outside Tobruk. "This is the first time I've seen missiles like these up close," said Abdelsalam al-Gedani, one of the guards, dressed in an overcoat and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle.
International alarm has risen over the crisis, and is sending oil prices soaring and European and other countries scrambling to get their citizens out of Libya. Oil prices hit $100 per barrel for the first time since 2008. Libya is the world's 15th largest exporter of crude, accounting for 2 percent of global daily output. Traders are worried the revolt could threaten Libya's oil production and spread to other countries in the region.
Passengers arriving in Malta, a short flight away from Libya, described chaos and violence at Tripoli's airport, with desperate people pushing and shoving to get onto the few flights taking off Wednesday.
"One of my fellow passengers was actually beaten up quite heavily and kicked on," said Steffan Arnersten, a 42-year-old Swede who works as a managing director at a technical consulting company.
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.
After a meeting of EU ambassadors, the bloc did not announce sanctions, but EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU stood "ready to take further measures" beyond suspending talks on a bilateral deal.
The precise measures were still being negotiated, a senior EU official said, adding that there were up to 10,000 EU citizens in Libya, sparking worries about getting them out of the North African country safely. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
"The continuing brutal and bloody repression against the Libyan civilian population is revolting," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement. "The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights."
Follow the latest updates on the protests in Libya and throughout the Middle East and North Africa below.
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."