TRIPOLI, Libya — Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fired tear gas at protesters who marched in Tripoli on Friday, calling for the Libyan leader's ouster in defiance of a fierce crackdown by regime supporters that has spread fear in the capital.
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More than 1,500 protesters marched out of the Murad Agha mosque after noon prayers in the eastern Tripoli district of Tajoura, chanting "the people want to bring the regime down" and waved the red, black and green flag of Libya's pre-Gaddafi monarchy, adopted as the banner up the uprising.
The protesters transformed a nearby square, tearing down posters of the Libyan leader and replacing them with the flags. They spray-painted walls with graffiti reading, "Down with Gaddafi" and "Tajoura will dig your grave."
But soon after the march began, security forces fired tear gas at the crowd, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. The protesters scattered, but rejoined to continue their march. Then security forces fired live ammunition, scattering the protesters again – though it was not immediately clear if they fired in the air or at people.
Similar protests a week ago were met by a brutal crackdown, when militiamen opened fire on demonstrators moments after they began their marches, killing a still unknown number. Since then, pro-Gaddafi forces have carried out a wave of arrests against suspected demonstrators, snatching some from their homes in nighttime raids.
"I am not afraid," said one 29-year-old man among the protesters. He said in the protests a week ago one of his relatives was shot to death – not by militias, he said, but by a pro-Gaddafi infiltrator among the demonstrations. "There are many spies among us. But we want to show the world that we are not afraid" he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation.
Control of the capital is crucial to the Libyan leader, since it remains his strongest remaining bastion amid the uprising that began on Feb. 15 and has broken the entire eastern half of Libya out of his control. Even some cities in the west near Tripoli have fallen to the uprising, and the opposition has repelled repeated attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces trying to take back the territories.
A large force from a brigade led by one of Gaddafi's sons led a new attack Friday on Zawiya, the closest opposition-held city to Tripoli, a resident said. The troops from the Khamis Brigade – named after the son – attacked Zawiya's western side, firing mortars and then engaging in battles of heavy machine guns and automatic weapons with armed residents and allied army units, said the resident.
"Our men are fighting back the force, which is big," the resident said. Zawiya, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, has beaten back several assaults the past week.
Throughout the night and into the early hours Friday, pro-Gaddafi forces also fired mortars and anti-aircraft guns at the outskirts of opposition-held Misrata, Libya's third largest city located just east of Tripoli, a doctor in the city said. He said it appeared to be an intimidation tactic, causing no casualties.
The crisis has turned into something of deadlock between the two sides. Gaddafi's forces have been unable to take back significant ground from the rebellion. At the same time, his opponents, made up of ragtag citizen militias backed by mutinous army units, don't seem to have the capabilities to make a military move against territory still in regime hands.
Instead, the eastern-based opposition is hoping that residents of those areas – including Tripoli – will be able to rise up like they did in other cities where protesters drove out Gaddafi loyalists.
Friday could be a significant test of whether the opposition can maintain protests in Tripoli in the face of a fearsome clampdown.
Several hours before prayers, security forces began to take up positions. Internet services, which have been spotty throughout Libya's upheaval, appeared to be halted completely in Tripoli on Friday. In Tajoura, scene of protests last week, police set up two checkpoints on the main highway leading to downtown. They stopped cars to search them, check drivers' ID and ask where they were going or coming from.
Before noon prayers, worshippers massd in Tajoura's Murad Agha mosque, debating on what to do next. They said messages between Tripoli organizers were being aired on radio being aired from Benghazi, the main city in the opposition-held east, and audible in the capital.
At one point, they decided to hold a sit-in inside the mosque to avoid coming under gunfire by stepping outside.
"Gaddafi lies with impunity," said one 80-year-old among the worshippers, wearing traditional Libyan dress. "For 40 years, he never told the truth."
But in the end, the 400 worshippers inside marched out, joined by hundreds of others.
Some protests in other parts of the capital appeared to have not gotten off the ground. One resident said he went to prayers at a downtown mosque and found police officers standing outside to ensure no one marched. After prayers, the worshippers dispersed without protests.
The resident added that authorities distributed Thursday leaflets calling on people to gather after the Friday prayers in the Green Square to show support for the "Brother Leader," Gaddafi.
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."