Fighters loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi are reinforcing their grip on the capital, Tripoli, as a growing popular uprising spreads across the eastern half of the country and anti-government forces consolidate control over key Mediterranean cities.
In Tripoli, Mr. Gadhafi’s stronghold, protest organizers are calling for new rallies Thursday and Friday, raising the potential for a new bloody confrontation there.
Residents in the Libyan capital say the streets were largely deserted Wednesday, with people afraid to leave their homes. Armed militiamen and pro-Gadhafi loyalists – a mix of Libyans and African mercenaries – are reportedly roaming through Tripoli and fortifying the city’s outer defenses. Security agents are said to be searching for people considered disloyal to the regime, a day after the Libyan leader urged his supporters to attack demonstrators.
Anti-government forces claimed Wednesday to have taken control of Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city about 200 kilometers from Tripoli, marking the westernmost advance of the opposition movement. People fleeing across the border into Tunisia reported heavy fighting in the town of Sabratha, 80 kilometers west of the capital.
Meanwhile, protesters and mutinous army units continue to consolidate their hold on nearly the entire eastern half of Libya’s 1,600 kilometer-long coastline, setting up local “people’s committees” and manning checkpoints along the main roads.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, cradle of the revolt against Mr. Gadhafi, rebels and supporters thronged the streets waving red, green and black monarchy-era flags and handing out food to passing cars. Benghazi residents also formed units to collect weapons and protect property. The Associated Press reported that during a mass rally outside the city’s main courthouse, residents vowed to “liberate” Tripoli.
In the eastern city of Baida, police stations, intelligence buildings and other installations representing Mr. Gadhafi’s rule stood in ruins as people celebrated in the street. A VOA correspondent at the Egyptian border with Libya says “well-armed men” celebrating their control of the eastern border region have been chanting and waving the country’s pre-Gadhafi-era flag.
In a further sign of Mr. Gadhafi’s faltering hold, a Libyan newspaper reported Wednesday that two air force pilots parachuted out of their warplane and let it crash into the eastern Libyan desert rather than follow orders to bomb Benghazi. Earlier, two Libyan bombers had diverted to Malta rather than bomb civilians.
Mr. Gadhafi vowed to stay in power and called on his supporters to fight back against opposition protesters during a televised address Tuesday — his first since the uprising began last week. He described anti-government demonstrators as “gangs” and “terrorists” on hallucinogenic drugs and threatened death to anyone who took up arms against Libya.
The overall death toll has been impossible to determine. Human rights groups say they have confirmed about 300 deaths, though witnesses suggest the number is far larger. On Wednesday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said more than 1,000 people have likely been killed in Libya’s week-long uprising.
In another setback to Mr. Gadhafi Tuesday, a close associate, Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younis, announced his defection and support for the uprising. Numerous other Libyan officials, including the justice minister, diplomats and military officers, also have turned against the Libyan leader in recent days. Mr. Gadhafi took power in a 1969 coup