Gadhafi's Forces Maintain Their Hold On Tripoli

February 23, 2011

NPR Staff and Wires

Thousands of people were fleeing Libya on Wednesday, as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi reportedly continued a crackdown on protesters in the capital. Rogue elements of the police and army aligned with the anti-government opposition appeared to be in firm control of parts of the east.

Libya's Quryna newspaper reported Wednesday that a military pilot and navigator bailed out and ditched their Soviet-era Su-22 fighter rather than carry out an order to bomb the opposition-held city of Benghazi.

The opposition reportedly seized control of Misurata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, after days of fighting. Witnesses said people were honking their horns and raising flags representing the monarchy overthrown by Gadhafi more than 40 years ago.

Misurata would be the first major city in western Libya to fall to anti-government forces, which claim — with the help of defecting security forces — to have taken control of nearly the entire eastern half of Libya's 1,000-mile Mediterranean coast, including several oil-producing areas.

Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor in Misurata, said six residents had been killed and 200 wounded since Jan. 18, when protesters attacked offices and buildings affiliated with Gadhafi's regime

Protesters also claimed to have taken over the eastern city of Tobruk, with people taking to the streets to vent their anger at the regime. Clashes broke out over the past two days in the town of Sabratha, west of the capital, where the army and militiamen were trying to put down protesters who overwhelmed security headquarters and government buildings, a news website close to the government reported.

Independent reporting was scarce in much of Libya, but new opposition videos posted on Facebook showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the flag from the pre-Gadhafi monarchy on a building in Zawiya, on the outskirts of the capital. Another showed protesters lining up cement blocks and setting tires ablaze to fortify positions on a square inside the capital

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported that in one town in eastern Libya, the streets were filled with "men in uniform, either police or army, but they have basically gone over to the other side."

"They are keeping the peace," she said. "They're working with pro-democracy forces. They are no longer loyal to Gadhafi.

International outrage mounted after Gadhafi — in a televised address punctuated by anger and fist-pounding — exhorted his supporters to strike back at anti-government protesters as he pledged never to relinquish power. Celebratory gunfire from Gadhafi supporters rang out in the capital of Tripoli after the speech, while people in Benghazi threw shoes at a TV screen to show their contempt.

Gadhafi's address appeared to have brought out a heavy force of supporters and militiamen that largely prevented major protests in the capital Tuesday night or Wednesday. Gunfire rang out through the night, one woman who lives near downtown told The Associated Press.

"Mercenaries are everywhere with weapons. You can't open a window or door. Snipers hunt people," she said. "We are under siege, at the mercy of a man who is not a Muslim.''

During the day Wednesday, more gunfire was heard near Gadhafi's residence, but in many parts of the city of 2 million residents were venturing out to stores, some residents said. The government sent out text messages urging people to go back to their jobs, aiming to show that life was returning to normal. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

As the fighting in Libya intensified, streams of people continued to flow out the country. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said thousands of people have fled into Tunisia. The initial escapees consisted mostly of Tunisians who had been working in Libya, but more and more Libyans were leaving, the refugee agency said.

The Tunisian military sent extra troops to its border with Libya. U.N. officials in Tunis told NPR that the purpose of the reinforcement was mainly to provide humanitarian assistance.

At the Egyptian border, guards had fled, and local tribal elders have formed local committees to take their place. "Welcome to the new Libya," a graffiti spray-painted at the crossing proclaimed. 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 then tribal leaders stepped in and ordered them to stop.

"They did because they were from here. So the officers fled," he said.

Western nations were also organizing ferry boats and charter planes to get their citizens out of Libya. The United States was evacuating hundreds of Americans and nonessential embassy personnel by ferry, taking them across the Mediterranean to Malta.

Britain was chartering flights and positioning a Royal Navy frigate off the Libyan coast in case it's needed to assist in the evacuations. Turkey has already pulled out thousands of its citizens by sea and air.

International alarm has risen over the crisis, which sent oil prices soaring to the highest level in more than two years on Tuesday. 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. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.