Fear stalks Tripoli, celebrations in Libya's east

ALEXANDER DZIADOSZ
Last updated 08:08 24/02/2011

Tobruk celebrates amid protests

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Thousands of Libyans celebrated the liberation of the eastern city of Benghazi from the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, who was reported to have sent a plane to bomb them as he clung to power.

The crew bailed out of the aircraft after it took off from the capital Tripoli. It then came down south-west of Benghazi, Libya's Quryna newspaper cited a military source as saying, averting a fresh bloodshed in almost a week of violence.

Tripoli, along with western Libya, is still under Gaddafi's control and people there said they were too afraid of pro-government militia to go out after Gaddafi threatened violence against protesters in a speech on Tuesday night.

As many as 1,000 people have been killed in since the revolt began around a week ago, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said as world leaders scrambled to evacuate their citizens and disagreed on how to end the turmoil.

Also abandoning Gaddafi's realm have been officials and diplomats previously loyal to the veteran leader. A small Libyan airliner turned away from Malta on Wednesday was carrying a daughter of Gaddafi, Al Jazeera said from the European island.

OIL PRESSURE

Oil prices climbed above US$110 a barrel amid fears chaos could spread to other oil-producing nations and choke supplies, which could dash hopes of any quick global economic recovery.

Trade sources said at least oil cargoes did make it out of Libyan ports over the 24 hours to mid-Wednesday, however.

An air force officer, Major Rajib Faytouni, said in Benghazi, the cradle of the revolt, that he had witnessed up to 4,000 mercenaries arrive on Libyan transport planes over three days starting from February 14, London's Guardian newspaper said.

"That's why we turned against the government. That and the fact there was an order to use planes to attack the people," he told the newspaper in Benghazi.

Hossam Ibrahim Sherif, director of the Benghazi health centre, told Reuters about 320 people had been killed in the city.

With much of the oil-producing east said to be under control of the protesters, an empty jail burnt in Benghazi and people let off firecrackers and honked their horns to mark the end of days of bloodshed there.

Britain's Sky News showed footage of anti-aircraft missiles at what it said was an abandoned military base near Tobruk, also in the east.

FOREIGNERS TRAPPED

Countries with strong business ties to Africa's third largest oil producer scrambled to evacuate thousands of citizens and a Turkish worker was shot dead at a building site near the capital, Turkish officials said.

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A British oil worker said he was stranded with 300 other people at a camp in the east of Libya, where he said local people had looted oil installations.

"We are living every day in fear of our lives as the local people are armed," James Coyle told the BBC.

"They've looted ... the German camp next door, they've taken all their vehicles, all our vehicles ... everything. So we are here desperate for the British government to come and get us."

Britain said it was pressing the Libyan authorities to reopen a military airport to help with evacuations and calling for a UN Security Council resolution to condemn the violence.

President Barack Obama was very concerned for US citizens in Libya, the White House said, and would look at UN sanctions among other responses to the government's violence there.

France became the first country to call outright for sanctions. "I would like the suspension of economic, commercial and financial relations with Libya until further notice," President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

But in the latest sign of international division over how to deal with Gaddafi, the prime minister of Qatar said he did not want to isolate Libya, where several senior officials have declared their backing for protests that began about a week ago.

Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younes al Abidi and a senior aide to Gaddafi's influential son Saif were the latest to change sides.

"I resigned from the Gaddafi Foundation on Sunday to express dismay against violence," Youssef Sawani, executive director of the foundation, said in a text message sent to Reuters.

There was no immediate confirmation in Malta of the report that a daughter of Gaddafi was aboard a plane which officials said tried to land on the island but was turned back to Libya.

TROOPS DEPLOYED

Gaddafi has deployed troops to the west of the capital to try to stop the revolt that started in the east from spreading. In the east, many soldiers have withdrawn from active service.

General Soliman Mahmoud al-Obeidy told Reuters in Tobruk the Libyan leader was no longer trustworthy. "I am sure he will fall in the coming days," he said.

Gaddafi, once respected by many Libyans despite his repressive rule, called for a mass show of support on Wednesday, but only around 150 people gathered in Tripoli's central Green Square, carrying the Libyan flag and Gaddafi's portrait.

Most streets were almost deserted and a handful of cafes appeared to be the only businesses open despite government appeals for a return to work sent to subscribers of Libya's two state-controlled mobile phone companies.

"Lots of people are afraid to leave their homes in Tripoli and pro-Gaddafi gunmen are roaming around threatening any people who gather in groups," Marwan Mohammed, a Tunisian, said as he crossed Libya's western border into Tunisia.

An estimated 1.5 million foreign nationals are working or travelling in Libya and a third of the population of seven million are immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Witnesses described scenes of chaos as people tried to leave. "It's a Biblical exodus," said Italy's Frattini, predicting several hundred thousand would seek refuge in Italy.

CREDIBLE ESTIMATES

The UN Security Council condemned the use of violence and called for those responsible for attacks on civilians to be held to account and British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a formal resolution.

"The Libyan regime is using appalling levels of force and violence against its own people including using aeroplanes that are shooting at people," he said.

Protests in Libya's neighbours Egypt and Tunisia have ousted entrenched leaders, but Gaddafi, who took power in a military coup in 1969 and has ruled the mainly desert country with a mixture of populism and tight control, is still fighting back.

On Tuesday, he declared he was ready to die "a martyr" in Libya. "I shall remain here defiant," he said on state television, dismissing protesters as "rats and mercenaries".

Up to a quarter of Libya's oil production has been closed, based on calculations from firms in the country, which stretches from the Mediterranean into the Sahara and pumps nearly 2 percent of world oil output.

The White House said global powers must speak with one voice in response to the "appalling violence" in Libya.

But Washington has little leverage over Libya, which was a U.S. adversary for most of Gaddafi's rule until it agreed in 2003 to abandon a weapons-of-mass-destruction programme and moved to settle claims from the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Gaddafi said he would call on people to "cleanse Libya house by house" unless protesters surrendered. "Chase them, arrest them, hand them over," he said

- Reuters

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