Reports from Libya indicate the more than 40-year-rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is under siege from an escalating popular uprising that has turned increasingly violent.
News reports quote witnesses from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, as saying helicopters and warplanes struck parts of the city on Monday. Witnesses in Tripoli say the country’s legislative branch was among government buildings set on fire as opposition activists battled security forces and government supporters. Widespread gunfire from armed militiamen has been reported in the capital, where reports indicate an hour-by-hour surge in the fighting.
Separately, military officials on the nearby island nation of Malta report that two Libyan fighters jets landed there and their pilots defected, saying they had been ordered to attack protestors.
Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, Monday called for Mr. Gadhafi to step down and said he should stand trial for war crimes. There are also accounts of officials fleeing the country and a string of defections by Libyan ambassadors abroad.
Some key cities are reported to be under the control of anti-government protesters. Information is hard to come by because there are no foreign media outlets in Libya and Libyan television is under state control.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said Monday that at least nine Libyan cities, including Benghazi, Sirte and Misrata, were in the hands of the protesters.
Human Rights Watch said the death toll continues to rise. It said at least 233 people have been killed in five days of violence.
The U.S. State Department has ordered all embassy families and non-essential personnel to leave Libya. It also urged U.S. citizens to defer travel there.
Mr. Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam went on state television late Sunday to proclaim that his father remains in charge with military support in the face of the most serious anti-government revolt since the elder Gadhafi took power in a 1969 coup. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi vowed that the government will fight until “the last man, the last woman, and the last bullet” to stay in power.
Wagging his finger in a rambling address, the younger Gadhafi warned Libyans to stop the uprising or risk igniting a civil war that will drown the country in “rivers of blood” and lead to a return of colonial powers. He insisted that Libya is “not Egypt or Tunisia” – neighboring countries whose strongmen were swept from power in recent weeks.
Saif al-Islam Gadhafi blamed the protests that erupted in eastern Libya last Monday on a variety of culprits, including Libyan exiles, Islamists, foreign media, and drug abusers. But, he conceded that Libyan security forces had made some “mistakes” in cracking down on demonstrators because of a lack of training in dealing with such situations. In a conciliatory move, the younger Gadhafi said the government is willing to begin a dialogue on political reforms, including a new constitution and confederate power structure.
In other developments Sunday, a representative of Libya’s powerful Warfallah tribe said it has turned against Moammar Gadhafi and is siding with the opposition. Several Libyan diplomats, including the Libyan representative to the Arab League and the Libyan ambassador to India, quit in protest over the government’s violent crackdown.
Libyan authorities have cut Internet and some telephone services in response to the protests, making it difficult to independently verify reports of violence. But foreign media organizations have been able to speak to witnesses in the country through satellite phones and other connections.