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Libya rebels closing in on Tripoli

Unrest continued to draw closer to Tripoli a day before a planned demonstration against President Moammar Kadafi’s long-standing rule, igniting in areas of western Libya previously under tight government control.

After braving days of extreme violence and seizing control of the oil-rich North African country’s eastern areas, anti-Kadafi forces reportedly took control of the city of Zawiya, just 30 miles west of the capital.

Kadafi, in another characteristically rambling speech Thursday, acknowledged sustained fighting in Zawiya and described young protesters across Libya as drug-addled disciples of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“It is clear now,” he said in the speech, which was phoned in to a news program as it showed a presenter listening. “Those who recruited our children are Al Qaeda. It is Bin Laden, otherwise known as international terror.”

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The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights estimated that 640 people have been killed in fighting across Libya, more than twice the figure cited by the Tripoli government. Estimates from other sources range as high as 2,000.

The deteriorating situation “demands quick action,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney, adding that the Obama administration was working with the United Nations and allies to identify options for dealing with the crisis.

A U.S.-chartered ferry sent to evacuate Americans from Libya remained docked at a terminal in Tripoli for a second day, a delay for which the State Department blamed rough weather in the region. Speculation intensified, however, that the Kadafi regime might have been blocking the vessel’s departure to provide a human shield to protect him from any forceful U.S. intervention.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said that “prudent planning for any number of contingencies” was being done among U.S. military leaders, but he declined to give details.

“The situation there is very bad,” said Hassan Sheikh, 43, an Egyptian laborer among the accelerating flow of people packing whatever belongings they could carry and making a break for Ras Ajdir, a Tunisian border crossing 120 miles west of the Libyan capital. “There is no mercy there. They killed many people.”

Others among the fleeing Egyptians and Tunisians hurriedly dismissed questions about the situation, a few acknowledging that they were threatened by security forces to present a positive picture of the country or face the prospect of having friends or relatives still in Libya being harmed or barred from working in a nation whose oil wealth has made it a magnet for job seekers.

“Say that you saw beautiful things,” one Tunisian businessmen who travels frequently to Libya said a security official told him.

In Zawiya, witnesses described a horrifying night of explosions and gunfire. They said militiamen roamed the streets killing people with guns and swords. One resident said as many as 20 people had been killed.

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In his speech, Kadafi said he was “affected” by the reports of bloodshed and asked for his forces to hold their fire. “They told me over the phone about this and I got upset, extremely upset, and asked for an immediate halt to the use of force,” he said.

The violence in Zawiya, a city of at least 210,000, commenced with the rattle of gunfire and large explosions shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday, said an Egyptian construction worker living there.

Al Jazeera television quoted a political activist in Zawiya as saying that early Thursday troops opened fire on the city, which lies along a key road to the capital. Another witness told the channel that “scores were killed” and hundreds more injured.

“The city has the feel of a ghost town,” said Habib Nawally, an Egyptian laborer. “The city center is closed and there is nothing. Zawiya is full of dead people.”

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Fleeing residents also spoke of demonstrations in the western town of Zuwarah, along the road between the Tunisian border and the Libyan capital

“There were demonstrations. There was fire,” said 19-year-old Walid Boray Mahmoud, a construction worker eating a tuna sandwich and drinking a bottle of milk, both handed to him by Tunisian relief organizations helping those escaping Libya.

Other parts of western Libya, including the towns of Khiar, Ajaylat and Jumayl, and Tripoli neighborhoods such as Mansoura were reportedly calm, residents and witnesses said.

But the violence appeared to be springing up in pockets, especially in and around the capital. One resident said he passed by a gunfight on the main coastal highway Thursday afternoon as he was trying to make his way west to the border.

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A resident of Janzour Jadida, on the far outskirts of the capital, said he finally decided to leave after withstanding the sound of gunfire day and night.

Life had shut down in Tripoli, witnesses said. Banks and shops were shuttered and construction projects had come to a halt. Jordan dispatched a military plane to evacuate its nationals, and Turkey sent a ship to carry 3,000 citizens home from the eastern city of Benghazi, now under rebel control. Nearly 300 Chinese nationals showed up late Thursday at one hotel near the Tunisian border.

Egyptians at the Tunisian border described pandemonium at Libya’s international airport, with riot police clubbing those seeking flights out of the country. Commercial flights into the country appear to have halted. “They beat us at the airport,” said Ahmad Masri, a 25-year-old Egyptian. “They fired warning shots to disperse the crowds.”

There was no way of knowing whether Libyans in the capital would turn out en masse for the rally Friday, which coincides with the weekly Muslim prayer ceremony at major mosques. Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were driven from power during massive street protests that took place on Fridays.

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A downtown Tripoli resident reached by telephone said any show of opposition has been quickly crushed by militiamen and soldiers. “But no one is afraid,” said Mohammad Khalil, 31, a businessman. “Everyone is going out.”

He said he would join the demonstration despite the near-certainty of violence. “People will pay a price, but it will be the big day for Libya,” he said.

In the eastern city of Beida, under rebel control, the outgoing justice minister and opposition figure Mustapha Abdul Jalil urged the international community to stand firmly against Kadafi. “We call upon influential powers and neighboring states to stand united in their support of the Libyan people, who are being exterminated at this moment,” he told tribal leaders in a speech carried by Al Jazeera.

“We cleaned the city,” said Ahmed, a 22-year-old engineering student reached by telephone in Benghazi. “There is no army. The situation is under the control of the population.”

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In Benghazi, some leaders have begun to punish those accused of collaborating with Kadafi during his four decades of iron-fisted rule.

Prosecutors in the city showed reporters six men from Ghana who were allegedly mercenaries hired by Kadafi and one man who was described as an admitted member of the dictator’s militia. That man said mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa threatened to kill him if he didn’t open fire on protesters while holding bayonets to the backs of their heads.

In his speech, Kadafi sounded increasingly out of touch with reality. He likened himself to the king of Thailand and Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, both of whom, he noted, have served longer than his 41 years in office. He said his country has a democracy by way of the system he put into place whereby “people’s committees” staffed by his loyalists are meant to address Libyans’ demands.

He denied that Libya was being roiled by the same youthful demands for change unsettling authoritarian states in an arc stretching from Morocco and Algeria to Yemen and Iran.

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“There’s no link to what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia, never,” he said. In Libya, “you have the power. You decide everything. But this is not about power.”

In Europe, calls were intensifying for some form of action to halt the bloodshed. French and British officials urged international investigation of reported atrocities committed by the government against the Libyan people.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told reporters during a visit to Ukraine that the alliance had no plans to intervene in Libya and that any action would have to be taken with “a clear United Nations mandate.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

Times staff writers Bob Drogin in Cairo and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and special correspondent Sihem Hassaini in Zarzis, Tunisia, contributed to this report.


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