TRIPOLI, Libya - Moammar Gadhafi's regime passed out guns to civilian supporters, set up checkpoints and sent armed patrols roving the terrorized capital Saturday to put down a revolt in his main stronghold by residents inspired by the success of rebels elsewhere who hold
about half of the North African nation.
SCROLL DOWN FOR LATEST UPDATES IN LIVE BLOG
Foreign journalists allowed into Tripoli for the first time since protests engulfed Libya saw the scars of rebellion: a burned police station with piles of ashes outside, walls covered with anti-Gadhafi graffiti and shattered glass and rocks in the streets.
On Friday, pro-Gadhafi militiamen -- including snipers -- fired on protesters trying to mount the first significant anti-government marches in days in Tripoli, residents said. The Libyan leader, speaking from the ramparts of a historic Tripoli fort, called on his supporters to prepare to defend the nation.
Outside the capital, rebels held a long swath of about half of Libya's 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) Mediterranean coastline where most of the population lives and even captured a brigadier general and a soldier as the Libyan army tried to retake an air base east of Tripoli. Several cities in the Gadhafi-held pocket of northwestern Libya around Tripoli also have fallen to the rebellion.
Militiamen and pro-Gadhafi troops were repelled when they launched attacks trying to take back opposition-held territory in Zawiya and Misrata in fighting that killed at least 30 people.
The international community toughened its efforts to stop the bloodshed, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying some estimates indicate more than 1,000 people have been killed in less than two weeks since the protests broke out in Libya.
The U.N. Security Council met Saturday to consider sanctions to punish Gadhafi for violent attacks against anti-government protesters. The sanctions under consideration include an arms embargo and a travel ban and asset freeze directed at Gadhafi, his relatives and key regime members.
President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday freezing assets held by Gadhafi and four of his children in the United States.
The Arab world's longest serving ruler has survived past international isolation, Western sanctions over links to terrorism and U.S. airstrikes. Now facing the biggest challenge to his 42-years as leader of the oil-rich nation, he cannot allow the rebellion to advance into Tripoli.
But the capital was showing signs of the discord that has divided the country.
In Tripoli's Green Square, where state television has shown crowds of Gadhafi supporters in recent days, armed security men in blue uniforms were stationed around the plaza. Pro-Gadhafi billboards and posters were everywhere. A burned restaurant was the only sign of the unrest.
Supporters in about 50 cars covered with Gadhafi posters drove slowly around the square, waving green flags from the windows and honking horns. After nightfall, state TV showed only a few dozen pro-regime demonstrators.
Meanwhile, residents of Tripoli's eastern Tajoura district -- a site of demonstrations last week -- spread concrete blocks, large rocks and even chopped-down palm trees as makeshift barricades to prevent the SUVs and other large cars filled with young Gadhafi supporters wielding automatic weapons from entering their neighborhood.
Armed men in green armbands, along with uniformed security forces, checked those trying to enter the district, where graffiti that said "Gadhafi, you Jew," "Down with the dog," and "Tajoura is free" was still scrawled on walls. They turned away motorists who were then stopped at a second checkpoint by armed men in uniform. Those officers searched cars and
checked IDs of drivers and passengers.
Despite the tense atmosphere, scores of people in the neighborhood turned out at a funeral for a 44-year-old man killed in clashes with pro-regime forces. Anwar Algadi was killed Friday, with the cause of death listed as "a live bullet to the head," according to his brother, Mohammed.
A law school graduate who lives in the Fashloum area said he had seen many people killed by snipers in recent days and he said the injured were being removed from hospitals by pro-Gadhafi forces. The Arada medical center, a modest clinic, had no patients. Standing at the hospital door were members of the governmental People's Committees, the local councils that run Libya.
In an interview broadcast Saturday on Al-Arabiya TV, Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, denied the government had used any violence against protesters.
"The stories about the mercenaries are all lies. The stories about the strikes on neighborhoods are all lies. The numbers (of casualties) you hear are all lies," he said.
He dismissed the rebellion but also portrayed himself and his father's regime as reformers, saying they were willing to speak with citizens about freedom, democracy and constitutional issues.
"But this change has to be organized and not come through thuggery and terrorism," he said.
In Tripoli, most residents stayed in their homes Saturday, terrified of bands of armed men at checkpoints and patrolling the city. In the Souq al-Jomaa and Fashloum districts, most stores were closed except for bakeries, where long lines formed. Several people had trucks that they were filling with food.
A 40-year-old business owner said he had seen Gadhafi supporters enter one of the regime's Revolutionary Committee headquarters Saturday and leave with arms. He said the regime is offering a car and money to any supporters bringing three people with them to join the effort.
"Someone from the old revolutionary committees will go with them so they'll be four," the witness said when reached by telephone from Cairo. "They'll arm them to drive around the city and terrorize people."
Other residents said they saw trucks full of civilians with automatic rifles patrolling their neighborhoods. Many were young, even teenagers, and wore green arm bands or cloths on their heads to show their affiliation to the regime, residents said. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"People are panicked, they are terrified. Few leave their house," the law school graduate said. "When it gets dark, you can't walk in the streets because anybody who walks is subject to be shot to death."
He said Gadhafi's use of force against protesters had turned him against the regime.
"We Libyans cannot hear that there were other Libyans killed and remain silent," he said. "Now everything he says is a lie."
Tripoli, home to about a third of Libya's population of 6 million, is the center of the eroding territory that Gadhafi still controls.
Taxi driver Nasser Mohammed, who had a picture of Gadhafi and a green flag on his car, praised the leader's speech on Friday night in which he promised cash payments to every Libyan.
Mohammed, 25, said each family will receive 500 Libyan dinars (about $400) after the start of the protests, plus the equivalent of about $100 credit for phone service. State TV said families also will be entitled to 60,000 Libyan dinars (about $49,000) in interest-free loans to buy apartments.
"Libyans don't want anyone but Gadhafi," he said.
In Misrata, a resident said the opposition was still in control. Libya's third-largest city, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) from the capital, was calm Saturday, with many shops open and a local committee running civic affairs.
But the opposition only held parts of the sprawling Misrata Air Base after Friday's attack by Gadhafi supporters, he added.
Troops used tanks against the rebels at the base and succeeded in retaking part of it in battles with residents and army units who had joined the uprising against Gadhafi, said a doctor and a resident wounded in the battle. The doctor said 25 people were killed in fighting at the base since Thursday.
The resident said pro-Gadhafi troops captured several members of the opposition Friday and now the two sides are talking about a possible swap since the opposition also captured a soldier and a brigadier general. Libyan state TV confirmed that an army Brig. Gen. Abu Bakr Ali was captured, although it said he was "kidnapped by terrorist gangs." The state-run news agency JANA also said regime opponents held the commander of the air defense's 2nd Division and several other officers.
An anti-Gadhafi fighter in Misrata said the rebels battled about 18 mercenaries dropped from a helicopter near an area called Mirbat, and three were captured while the rest fled.
He said the rebels are planning to launch attacks from the eastern city of Benghazi in the direction of Sirte, Gadhafi's tribal home, and from Zawiya, Sibratha and Misrata toward Tripoli.
Deputy commander of Libya's Special Forces, Maj. Gen. Khalifa al-Mismari told Al-Arabiya TV that he has joined the revolution against the Libyan leader adding that the people will soon march toward Tripoli and Gadhafi's compound.
"The people of Zawiya, Jabal Gharbi, Misrata, Bani Walid and Tarhouna are angry and they are marching toward Tripoli and Bab al-Aziziyah. God willing Libya will be victorious and free," he
said from Benghazi.
State-run TV reported that the website of the JANA news agency was hacked.
The opposition also held complete control of Sabratha, a town west of Tripoli famed for nearby ancient Roman ruins, with no police or any security forces associated with the Gadhafi regime, said Khalid Ahmed, a resident. He added that tribes were trying to organize a march on Tripoli, although a checkpoint outside the capital would stop anyone from entering.
"All of Libya is together," Ahmed said. "We are not far from toppling the regime."
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."