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Qaddafi’s Grip Falters as His Forces Take On Protesters

Tunis - Libya appeared to slip further from the grip of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Tuesday

Tunis – Libya appeared to slip further from the grip of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Tuesday, as clashes intensified in Tripoli and opposition forces in eastern Libya moved to consolidate control of the region.

Witnesses described the streets of Tripoli, the capital, as a war zone. In several neighborhoods of the city, including one called Fashloum, protesters tried to seal off the streets with makeshift barricades of scrap steel and other debris. Forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi so far failed to surmount the barricades and young protesters appeared to be gathering rocks to throw in their defense in anticipation of a renewed attack.

Outside the barricades, militiamen and Bedouin tribesmen defending the strongman and his 40-year rule were stationed at intersections around the city. Many carried Kalashnikov assault rifles and an anti-aircraft gun was deployed in front of the state television headquarters.

“It is extremely tense,” one witness said, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals.

The rebellion is the latest and bloodiest so far of the uprisings that have swept across the Arab world with surprising speed in recent weeks, toppling autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia, and challenging others in Bahrain and Yemen.

With the Internet largely blocked, telephone service intermittent, and access to international journalists constrained, information from inside the country remained limited. The number of casualties in the weeklong revolt against Colonel Qaddafi remained unknown.

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that it was struggling to confirm the number of dead, saying it had confirmed 233 as of Monday, most in Benghazi, the eastern city where the uprising began. Opposition groups estimated that that at least 500 people had died.

A growing number of Libyan embassies around the world, including in neighboring Tunisia, have raised the country’s pre-Qaddafi flag — now considered the banner of the revolt — and many diplomats, including Libya’s ambassador to the United States, said they had resigned to protest the bloody crackdown.

International condemnation of the violence continued to build. “Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a statement. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said Monday that he had spoken to Colonel Qaddafi and urged him to immediately halt attacks on protesters.

An exodus from Tripoli has begun, a witness said, and the freeways were crowded with cars and pedestrians attempting to flee. Inside the capital, meanwhile, people waited for hours to buy fuel and bread.

Security forces and militiamen backed by helicopters and warplanes besieged parts of Tripoli overnight, according to witnesses and news reports. Fighting was heavy at times, and the streets were thick with special forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi fighting alongside mercenaries. Roving the streets in trucks, they shot freely as planes dropped what witnesses described as “small bombs” and helicopters fired on protesters.

Hundreds of Qaddafi supporters took over the central Green Square in the capital after truckloads of militiamen arrived and opened fire on protesters late Monday night, scattering them. Residents said they now feared to leave their houses.

“It was an obscene amount of gunfire,” said one witness. “They were strafing these people. People were running in every direction.”

Colonel Qaddafi, whose whereabouts have been unknown, appeared for about 30 seconds on state television at 2 a.m. on Tuesday to signal his defiance and deny rumors he had left the country. “I want to show that I’m in Tripoli and not in Venezuela,” he said, holding a large white umbrella while getting into a car.

“I wanted to say something to the youths at Green Square and stay up late with them but it started raining,” he said, referring to his supporters. “Thank God, it’s a good thing.”

Reports from small towns in the mountains outside of Tripoli indicated that uprisings have driven out forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi. But security forces blocked roads leading into Tripoli, preventing people from outside the city from joining the insurrection there.

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In Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, pro-government security forces appeared to have either fled or defected to the opposition. Citizens armed with guns organized into informal security committees, a resident reached by telephone said. Supermarkets and warehouses were open, as were local hospitals, caring for hundreds of people wounded during the government crackdown of the weekend, before defections from the military brought a lull in the violence.

“There is collaboration between people like never before,” said Mohammed Abdul Rahman el Mahrek, 42, who has been living in the city for 15 years and said he supported the rebellion. The warehouses of security forces loyal to the government had been looted by the people with the help of the army, he said. “It is quiet,” he said, “but it is like the quiet before the storm.”

Other reports coming out of Benghazi indicated greater tension. Several Ukrainian doctors, who had been working at the city’s hospitals, were quoted in a Ukrainian newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, on Tuesday as saying that the opposition forces would not allow them to leave.

“We have been earning money in this country, and now we have to work hard for the good of the revolution,” Dr. Mikhail Firtel said the new forces in charge told him. “And they don’t care that the doctors had no rest for 24 hours.”

Large areas of eastern Libya along the Mediterranean coast also appeared to be under the opposition’s control, said Ben Wedeman, a CNN correspondent who entered the region late Monday. Citizens with guns were everywhere, he reported, the streets were quiet, and the Libyan security forces at the border of Egypt had largely evaporated.

The border with Tunisia in the western part of the country was reinforced by Libyan security early in the day, but Reuters reported that only men armed with clubs and assault rifles opposed to Colonel Qaddafi were visible by the afternoon.

The violence Colonel Qaddafi unleashed in Tripoli on Monday demonstrated that he was willing to shed far more blood than the deposed rulers of either neighboring Egypt or Tunisia in his effort to hold on to power.

“This is not Ben Ali or Mubarak,” said one resident, referring to the deposed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. “This man has no sense of humanity.”

In a sign of growing cracks within the government, several senior officials broke with Colonel Qaddafi on Monday. The Quryna newspaper, which has ties to Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, reported that the justice minister, Mustafa Abud al-Jeleil, had resigned in protest over the deadly response to the demonstrations.

And in New York, the Libyan delegation to the United Nations defected as well. The deputy ambassador and more than a dozen members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations called upon Colonel Qaddafi to step down and leave the country in a letter drafted Monday.

“He has to leave as soon as possible,” said the deputy ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, paraphrasing the letter. “He has to stop killing the Libyan people.”

He urged other nations to join in that request, saying he feared there could be a large-scale massacre in Tripoli and calling on “African nations” to stop sending what he called “mercenaries” to fight on behalf of Colonel Qaddafi’s government.

Two Libyan fighter pilots ordered to bomb protesters changed their course and instead defected to Malta on Monday, according to Maltese government officials quoted by Reuters.

The United States ordered all nonessential personnel and family members at its embassy to leave the country, and the French, Russian, Serbian and Egyptian governments received permission to land evacuation plans for their citizens in Tripoli. The Dutch government said it was sending a frigate for its citizens, having been denied permission to land, Reuters reported, and several foreign oil and gas companies were moving to evacuate some workers as well.

Though the outcome of the battle is impossible to determine, some protesters said the bloodshed in Tripoli only redoubled their determination.

“He will never let go of his power,” said one, Abdel Rahman. “This is a dictator, an emperor. He will die before he gives an inch. But we are no longer afraid. We are ready to die after what we have seen.”

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tunis, and Sharon Otterman from Cairo. Reporting was contributed by Mona El-Naggar , Neil MacFarquhar and Kareem Fahim from Cairo; Nada Bakri from Beirut, Lebanon; and Colin Moynihan from New York.

This article “Qaddafi’s Grip Falters as His Forces Take On Protesters” originally appeared at The New York Times.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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