By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Libya’s embattled ruler Muammar Qaddafi has called on the people of Zawiya to stop fighting — saying violence in the city was caused by youths who are “stoned on drugs” and taking orders from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Qaddafi’s speech, made by telephone and broadcast live on state television, came as fierce fighting raged between government forces and antigovernment protesters in the oil-producing city, located about 50 kilometers west of Tripoli.
Earlier reports from Zawiya described a Libyan Army unit loyal to Qaddafi firing antiaircraft missiles and automatic weapons at a mosque after scores of antigovernment demonstrators refused to leave the area.
AP quoted witnesses in the town of Zawiya, about 50 kilometers west of Tripoli, who said a minaret of the mosque was destroyed and there were heavy casualties to demonstrators who had been camped inside and outside the mosque.
Correspondents say about 350 government troops were deployed in 35 military vehicles after dawn today and opened fire on crowds of protesters with heavy machine guns, while some armed demonstrators fought back with small-caliber hunting rifles and handguns.
Libya’s “Quryna” newspaper reported that at least 10 people were killed in fighting in Zawiya today. It did not specify if those deaths were from the attack on the mosque or from subsequent fighting.
The fighting comes a day after an aide to Qaddafi identified as Abdullah Megrahi came to the city and warned demonstrators at the mosque, “Leave, or you will see a massacre.”
Pro-Qaddafi forces have been fighting back fiercely as the regime’s control of the country has been whittled away in recent days.
Security forces loyal to Qaddafi today reportedly attacked antigovernment militias controlling the town of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, some 200 kilometers east of the capital.
The fighting was said to be taking place near the city airport, but antigovernment forces were said to remain in control of the city center.
Antigovernment militias today reportedly took control of the town of Zuara, some 120 kilometers west of Tripoli.
Eastern Libya has now essentially broken away from Tripoli’s control along with defecting members of the army.
Tribal leaders have called a meeting in the town of Al-Bayda to discuss the political vacuum in eastern Libya.
Army tanks with uniformed soldiers, no longer proclaiming loyalty to Qaddafi, also could be seen across large swathes of eastern Libya — flying the red, black, and green flag of the Libyan monarch that Qaddafi overthrew in the September 1969 coup d’etat that brought him to power.
The latest reports suggest protesters are now trying to take control in towns and cities to the west of Tripoli amid plans for a push on Tripoli itself after Friday Prayers on February 25.
The protesters who were killed at the mosque in Zawiya today were mostly youths who were armed with hunting rifles. Witnesses stressed that the attack in Zawiya was carried out by Libyan soldiers, and not foreign mercenaries.
The town is located near a key oil port and refineries on the Mediterranean coast. With no sign of police on the streets there, residents have formed committees to guard their homes and other buildings.
Survivors of today’s violence in Zawiya said they did not intend to respond to calls by the opposition for a nationwide protest march to Tripoli on February 25.
Meanwhile, government troops — as well as foreign mercenaries bankrolled by Qaddafi’s regime — reportedly were continuing violent crackdowns in other parts of the west and in Tripoli.
Qaddafi himself was reported to be holed up in Tripoli with a force of militia fighters who roam the streets and with tanks guarding the outskirts of the capital. Qaddafi loyalists also remain in control of Tripoli’s airport.
Foreigners Used As ‘Hostages’
Harrowing tales of the violence during the past week are emerging as foreign nationals are being evacuated.
A man who gave his name as Raymond, a British employee of the Spanish oil company Repsol, said on February 23 after being evacuated to Madrid that the shortage of supplies such as food and gasoline was reaching a critical point.
“Lying in bed every night listening to bombs and the firing of guns and everything until about 5 o’clock. You just can’t sleep,” he said.
“It is incredible the amount of tension there is there. And then you are just stuck in your house. You can’t do anything because you can’t go out.”
Turkey and the United States also have been evacuating their citizens from Libya on specially chartered ferries amid a flood of people trying to flee the country.
Turkish worker Ahmet Yucel said after arriving safely in Marmaris, Turkey, today that many foreign workers in Libya were being treated as hostages by government forces.
“Soldiers were using us as hostages. They did not give us any food,” Yucel said. “They even confiscated the food that the consulate provided to us.”
Egyptian and Tunisian workers, meanwhile, are complaining that they are being intentionally targeted by government loyalists and mercenaries, who blame Egypt and Tunisia for encouraging the uprising.
More than 20,000 Egyptians have already crossed Libya’s eastern border back into Egypt in recent days.
Italy is worried about a possible flood of Libyan refugees on its shores — with the Foreign Ministry in Rome warning about an influx of up to 300,000 refugees in the country if Qaddafi’s regime collapses.
written by Ron Synovitz from agency reports