Gaddafi regime imperiled as chaos seizes Tripoli

By The Associated Press

Air force pilots, diplomats defect, gov’t building burns; reports circulating of fighter jets attacking protesters; security forces plan massive crackdown; Venezuela denies Libyan leader headed there.

Deep fissures emerged in Muammar Gaddafi’s autocratic regime on Monday, with Libyan government officials at home and abroad resigning, air force pilots defecting and a major government building ablaze after clashes in the capital Tripoli. Despite a heavy crackdown, protesters called for another night of defiance against the Arab world’s longest-serving leader.

Gaddafi’s government appeared to be preparing a new major assault in the capital Monday night in an attempt to crush unrest that has already swept the eastern parts of the country – leaving Libya’s second largest city in protesters’ control – and was now overwhelming the capital of 2 million people.

State TV at nightfall Monday announced that the military had “stormed the hideouts of saboteurs” and called on the public to back the security forces as protesters called for a new demonstration in central Green Square and in front of Gaddafi’s Tripoli residence.

Military warplanes were seen swooping low over the city in the evening, and snipers had taken position on the roofs of buildings around Tripoli, apparently to stop people from outside the capital from joining the march, according to Mohammed Abdul-Malek, a London-based opposition activist in touch with residents.

Tripoli residents gave conflicting reports Monday, with some saying they could hear gunfire in the Libyan capital and a political activist telling Al Jazeera warplanes were bombing the city.

“We don’t know what is going on, all we can hear are occasional gunshots,” one resident who lives near the city’s central Green Square told Reuters. “I just hear gunshots sometimes. I am at home guarding my family because the situation is unstable. No one knows what will happen,” another resident said.

But Adel Mohamed Saleh, who called himself a political activist in Tripoli, said the aerial bombing had initially targeted a funeral procession. “What we are witnessing today is unimaginable. Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead,” Saleh told Al-Jazeera television in a live broadcast.

Communications into the capital appeared to have been cut, and mobile phones of residents could not be reached from outside the country. State TV showed images of hundreds of Gaddafi supporters rallying in central Green Square Monday evening, waving pictures of the Libyan leader and palm fronds.

The eruption of turmoil in the capital after six days of protests and bloody clashes in Libya’s eastern cities sharply escalates the challenge to Gaddafi, the Arab world’s longest ruling leader. His security forces have unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. At least 233 people have been killed so far, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The chaos in Libya, an OPEC country that is a significant oil supplier to Europe, was raising international alarm. Oil prices jumped $1.67 to nearly $88 a barrel Monday amid investor concern. European nations were eying an evacuation of their citizens.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting neighboring Egypt, called the Libyan government’s crackdown “appalling.”

“The regime is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see that country – which is one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic – make progress,” he told reporters in Cairo.

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