Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi offered no concessions to protesters who have shaken his regime by capturing several major cities, denouncing them as drunkards, terrorists and “drug-fueled mice” who should be executed.
But Kadafi’s tough 75-minute nationwide speech on Tuesday may not save a regime that after four decades in power seemed to be quickly disintegrating. With violence flaring in city after city, and key defections from his inner circle, he appeared out of touch and increasingly out of control.
In the speech, Kadafi praised one of his closest and most powerful aides, Interior Secretary and army Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis. Several hours later, however, Younis made clear in his own televised statement that he had joined the opposition, urging “all the armed forces to be at the service of the people … to help them achieve victory.”
Libya has been effectively cleaved in half by the eight-day uprising that has killed at least 300 people. Kadafi’s regime holds the capital, Tripoli, and crucial oil fields in the west, analysts said. Hundreds of miles to the east across mostly empty desert, opposition forces control the second-largest city, Benghazi, and the equally rich oil fields in that region.
The opposition claimed its latest prize Tuesday when protesters, arming themselves with weapons seized from police stations and weapons depots, occupied the Mediterranean port of Tobruk, expanding their control to the Egyptian border, according to refugee accounts.
Refugees poured out through border crossings into Egypt and Tunisia.
About a mile from a two-lane crossing at Salum, Egypt, near the Mediterranean coast, the road was clogged with vehicles that had come from all parts of Egypt, waiting for an expected flow of brothers, fathers and sons who had been working in Libya and are now fleeing. One convoy of minivans, roofs piled high with clothes, tools, bedding and belongings, came from the same village, El Minya. Many of the men, who had been working in Libya for years, said they had hidden for days until it was calm enough to get out, taking only what they could carry and leaving without getting paid.
The Egyptian army had set up a post and clinic to greet people at the border.
At the Marsa Matruh border crossing into Libya from Egypt, aid convoys with doctors, medical workers and humanitarian supplies waited in long lines. Blood shortages were said to be critical.
Pounding his fist and shouting during his speech, Kadafi vowed to die a martyr in Libya, and urged his supporters to help crush the uprising.
He threatened to “cleanse Libya house by house” if protesters didn’t surrender. “When they are caught they will beg for mercy, but we will not be merciful,” he warned.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the crackdown and called for “an immediate end to the violence. In a press statement supported by all 15 members, the council called on the Libyan government “to meet its responsibility to protect its population,” to act with restraint, and to respect human rights and international humanitarian law.
Its action left open how much further the council might go if the violence continues, or worsens, diplomats said. Western nations have been eager to signal to Kadafi that he will be punished if the street battles intensify. But China and Russia, which have been reluctant to intervene in what they view as other nations’ domestic matters, may resist.
“The callousness with which Libyan authorities and their hired guns are reportedly shooting live rounds of ammunition at peaceful protesters is unconscionable,” said Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters that the crackdown was “completely unacceptable” and must stop. The White House deplored what it called “appalling violence.” The Arab League condemned the violence and demanded an end to restrictions on media coverage in Libya.
Tripoli was reported quiet but tense after two days of clashes. Diplomats and witnesses said the military used fighter jets, helicopter gunships and foreign mercenaries to help put down the protests that raged across the city Monday and early Tuesday.
Regime opponents charged that pro-Kadafi militias used mortars and other heavy weapons, as well as automatic weapons, in some areas. Photos transmitted from inside Libya showed corpses that appeared riddled with shrapnel or that had been blown apart.
Numerous reports from inside Libya suggested militiamen and paid African mercenaries had fired into crowds, sealed off neighborhoods and shot from rooftops to quell the protests. Independent Arab media in Libya said militias were guarding access roads around Tripoli late Tuesday to block protesters from outside the capital.
A 27-year-old lawyer in Tripoli who identified himself only by his first name, Muataz, said late Tuesday in a conversation over the Internet that his neighborhood on the outskirts of Tripoli was quiet, but that security forces had established checkpoints and were screening anyone who went out.
“We knew from the beginning that Tripoli would be very tough to take because it’s the town of Kadafi,” he said. “If you go out, you will be asked ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where are you going?’”
Muataz said that on Sunday he had joined about 200 other lawyers in a protest outside the main courthouse in Tripoli, which was dispersed. Security forces shut down the courthouse and nearby streets. A friend described to him on Tuesday seeing protesters shot the previous day by security forces in the capital’s Fashloom district.
Reports of security forces using helicopters, warplanes and foreign mercenaries had frightened people in other parts of the capital, he said. Schools and offices were closed Tuesday, he said, but food and water were still available and prices had not gone up.
Outside Libya, some of the nation’s top diplomats rushed to distance themselves from Kadafi. Tripoli’s ambassadors to the U.S., China, India, Malaysia and Bangladesh have resigned, and the deputy ambassador to the U.N. denounced the attacks as genocide.
“We have never seen a government bomb its own people like this,” Ali Essawi, who quit as envoy to India, told Al Jazeera.
It was impossible to confirm many details of the turmoil inside Libya. The regime has cut most Internet access, telephone lines, cellphone service and other communication to the outside world.
The regime released its first official death toll from the unrest, saying 300 people, including 58 soldiers, had been killed. Nearly half were in Benghazi.
That tally was consistent with outside estimates. Human Rights Watch said at least 295 people were killed, and the International Federation for Human Rights put the toll between 300 and 400.
Whatever the final figure, the rebellion is the bloodiest so far of the uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia, and challenging others in Bahrain and Yemen.
The speaker of Libya’s parliament said the body would start working on a permanent constitution and set up a commission to investigate the violence. But Kadafi’s speech was a vintage performance in a theatrical setting. Swathed in brown robes and turban, he spoke from the ruins of his former Tripoli residence, which was hit by U.S. airstrikes in 1986 and left unrepaired as a monument of defiance.
He played the role of a besieged warrior leading a lonely battle against foreign enemies and internal conspirators. He paused often for effect, switched his glasses, wagged his finger, gave confused history lessons, and read from the penal code.
He blamed Arab media, America, Britain, Italy, and hallucinogenic drugs for inciting the protests. He called those who oppose his rule “greasy rats” and “sick people.”
“These gangs are cockroaches,” he shouted angrily. “They’re nothing. They’re not 1% of the Libyan people.”
He chastised Libyans for not being more grateful for his heroism, and warned that America would occupy Libya “like Afghanistan” if he was forced out.
Libyan independent media said crowds in Benghazi and the nearby city of Baida were so infuriated by Kadafi’s speech that they hurled their shoes, the ultimate insult in Arab culture, at screens where it was shown.
Although far more melodramatic, the address echoed former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s emotional appeals for public support before he finally was overthrown. Both men used vivid language to extol their patriotism, and vowed never to surrender.
But the man in Bedouin robes has done what Mubarak would not or could not do — deployed a modern army against his own people.
“As long as liberation is not achieved, fighting will continue street by street until Libya is liberated,” he said.
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman and special correspondent Amro Hassan in Cairo and staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Los Angeles contributed to this report.