By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Antigovernment protests have spread across Libya — from the border with Egypt in the east to the border with Tunisia in the west — amid further indications that the structure of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime is on the verge of collapse.
While a ban on the entry of foreign journalists into the western part of the country has complicated the reporting of events, reporters heading into Libya today from the eastern border with Egypt have confirmed that the east of the country is now under the control of protesters and antigovernment militia.
Journalists traveling from Egypt to the eastern cities of Tobruk, Benghazi, and Aj Dabiya confirmed that anti-Qaddafi forces were in control of the entire area and were flying the red, black, and green flag of the Libyan monarch that Qaddafi overthrew in a September 1969 coup d’etat.
Antigovernment forces now also claim control of Misurata, some 225 kilometers away from the capital, Tripoli, and the largest city in the western half of the country to fall into the opposition’s hands.
The gains come despite a furious speech delivered by Qaddafi on Tuesday (February 22), in which the embattled president showed no indication of stepping down.
He pledged to “fight to the last drop of blood” and called on his supporters to “cleanse” Libya of protesters “house by house.”
Clinging To Tripoli
Gunfire was heard in the capital today as pro-Qaddafi forces — bolstered by the presence of foreign mercenaries — roamed the streets. Many residents of the city have taken to their houses and mosques in fear of pro-Qaddafi forces opening fire indiscriminately.
Residents describe the foreign mercenaries as black Africans who speak French — leading to speculation that many of the mercenaries are from Chad.
According to “The New York Times,” hundreds of additional pro-Qaddafi forces are reportedly moving to the capital to reinforce his control.
The online “Quryna” newspaper reports today that the Libyan army deployed a “large number” of soldiers in Sabratah, about 80 kilometers west of the capital, after protesters there destroyed most of the security services offices.
Qaddafi’s regime admits that at least 300 people have been killed so far in efforts to put down the street protests. The International Federation for Human Rights said more than 600 have been killed. But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told the parliament in Rome today that estimates of about 1,000 deaths are “credible.”
“We are faced with a situation that is certainly grave, that was made even more serious by the intent expressed by Qaddafi in his televised speech last night, his will to strike his own people, provoking the situation of a civil war among different areas, regions, and provinces of that country, where you have armed groups fighting each other, where you have armed bands and death squads raiding the land,” said Frattini. “On top of all this, the tragic toll will be, in any case, a bloodbath.”
With Qaddafi clinging to Tripoli and the death toll mounting, the EU and the U.S. announced today that they are considering imposing sanctions against the regime in an effort to stem the violence.
At a meeting of EU diplomats in Brussels, France and Germany pushed for the bloc to adopt restrictive measures against the Qaddafi government, including possible travel restrictions, an arms embargo, and asset freezes.
The diplomats agreed to explore the measures and will decide at a later date when they might be imposed.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley also said that sanctions were being considered to pressure the Libyan regime.
“We’re looking at a full range of tools and options that are available to us to achieve our goals of seeing an end to the violence in Libya and respect for the rights of the Libyan people,” he said. “That certainly includes looking at sanctions that could be imposed, either bilaterally or multilaterally.”
Crowley would not rule out efforts to establish a “no-fly” zone to prevent Libyan aerial attacks against protesters but acknowledged that the international process involved would be challenging.
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to make a statement on the crisis in the north African country later today.
Libya’s deputy UN ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who broke with Qaddaffi’s regime earlier this week, had requested ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday that the body impose a “no-fly” zone.
He also said that Qaddafi’s television speech reveals a desperate leader who is calling for acts of genocide from his supporters by equating the protesters with “rats” and “cockroaches” that must be exterminated.
Dabbashi is one on a growing list of high-level defections from the Qaddafi government in recent days.
The latest sign of crumbling support involves a senior Libyan official and aide to the Libyan ruler’s son, Saif al Islam Qaddafi, who announced his resignation today.
On February 22, Qaddafi’s Interior Minister, Abdel Fattah Younis, announced his resignation and urged the country’s armed forces to join the revolt.
Speaking from opposition-held Benghazi, where the protests began on February 17, Younis said antigovernment demonstrators have the backing of army troops who have defected.
Reports today said two air force pilots jumped from their fighter planes by parachute as they refused to carry out orders to bomb Benghazi.
A Reuters correspondent in Tobruk today interviewed military officers who were still their wearing uniforms but no longer declaring allegiance to Qaddafi. Those troops also said the eastern part of Libya is no longer in the hands of Qaddafi’s regime.
In the city of Al Bayda, AFP quoted local residents who said militia fighters loyal to Qaddafi had been executed there in recent days.
Maha Azzam, an expert on the Middle East and North Africa at London’s Chatham House, told RFE/RL today that he foresees an opposition victory.
“Once this whole process of protest has started, it’s going to be very difficult to roll it back, and we’re going to see possibly increased violence for some time. However, I think as Qaddafi himself feels more cornered, the regime will collapse in on itself,” he said. “Eventually, those voices of opposition will emerge that can take Libya forward.”
Exodus From Libya
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of foreign workers remain stranded in Libyan airports — forcing the United States and other countries to seek evacuation of its citizens by sea.
Turkey evacuated some 3,000 of its 25,000 citizens in Libya on February 23 by using two ships that sailed from the port of Benghazi. The United States called for its citizens to leave aboard a government-chartered ferry at the As-Shahab port in Tripoli.
Britain said it is redeploying a warship, the “HMS Cumberland,” off the Libyan coast for a possible seaborne evacuation of British citizens stuck in the country.
Italy’s Frattini says that he fears “an exodus of biblical proportions” from Libya — a wave of up to 300,000 refugees sweeping into Italy — if Qaddafi’s regime collapses.
The United Nations refugee agency said it was “imperative” for neighboring Tunisia and Egypt to keep their borders open to thousands who are fleeing the upheaval.