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East Libya Falls To Anti-Qaddafi Militia As Divisions Emerge In Military

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 23.02.2011 16:15

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.

Despite an impassioned and defiant plea from Qaddafi on February 22 for his supporters to "cleanse" Libya of protesters "house by house," large swaths of the country reportedly are no longer under government control.

Qaddafi's regime admits that at least 300 people have been killed so far in efforts to control the street protests. But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament in Rome today that estimates of about 1,000 deaths so far in the Libyan protests 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," Frattini said.

"On top of all this, the tragic toll will be, in any case, a bloodbath."

Regime Loses Eastern Libya

Foreign media are banned from covering the parts of Libya where Qaddafi's regime still holds sway. That has made it difficult to confirm what's happening in Tripoli and in western parts of the country.

But international media have been heading into Libya today from the eastern border with Egypt, confirming that eastern Libya is no longer under the control of Qaddafi's regime.

Correspondents report no sign of police or army forces loyal to Qaddafi in the east. But there are signs of a split within Libya's military forces just a day after Libyan Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younis announced his resignation and urged the country's armed forces to join the revolt.

Speaking from Benghazi, where the protests began on February 17, Younis said antigovernment demonstrators had the backing of army troops who have defected.

A team of French journalists from AFP reported seeing antigovernment militia forces today, many of them armed, all along the highway that follows the Mediterranean coast from the Egyptian border to Tobruk.

Demonstrators were celebrating in Tobruk overnight after three days of confrontations with security forces appeared to be subsiding as a result of the split in army.

A Reuters correspondent in Tobruk today interviewed military officers who were still wearing their uniforms but no longer declaring allegiance to Qaddafi. Those troops also said the eastern part of Libya was 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 -- a measure of the violence gripping the eastern part of the country.

The AFP team traveled from Egypt all the way through Tobruk and Benghazi to the eastern city of Aj Dabiya, reporting 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.

Further to the west, antigovernment protesters claimed control of the coastal city of Misurati about 225 kilometers east of Tripoli.

Qaddafi 'Desperate'?

Some reports suggest pro-Qaddafi forces -- bolstered by the presence of foreign mercenaries -- only control parts of the capital, Tripoli.

But Ibrahim al-Dabashi, the Libyan deputy ambassador to the United Nations who broke with Qaddaffi's regime earlier this week, says Qaddafi has managed to rally some loyalists in the army and has deployed troops against protesters in oil-rich western Libya.

Dabashi warned on February 22 in New York that Qaddafi's speech that day revealed a desperate leader who was calling for acts of genocide from his supporters by equating the protesters with "rats" and "cockroaches" that must be exterminated.

"Certainly the people have no arms and I think now the genocide started now in Libya," Dabashi said, "and I think the Qaddafi statement was just a code for his collaborators to start the genocide against the Libyan people."

The online "Quryna" newspaper reported that the Libyan Army deployed a "large number" of soldiers in Sabratah, about 80 kilometers west of the capital, on February 23 after protesters there destroyed most of the security services offices.

Maha Azzam, an expert on the Middle East and North Africa at London's Chatham House, told RFE/RL that the situation on the ground today suggested there will be more violence in the days ahead.

"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," Azzam said.

"However, I think as Qaddafi himself feels more cornered, the regime will collapse in on itself. Eventually, those voices of opposition will emerge that can take Libya forward."

UN Condemnation

Brazil's Maria Viotti, the current president of the UN Security Council, strongly condemned Qaddafi's use of military troops and aircraft against protesters in the east earlier in the week.

"The members of the Security Council expressed grave concern at the situation in Libya," Viotti said. "They condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, deplored the repression against peaceful demonstrators, and expressed deep regret at the death of hundreds of civilians. They called for an immediate end to the violence and for steps to address the legitimate demands of the population, including through national dialogue."

But the Security Council's closed-door meeting about Libya on February 22 did not endorse any direct action against Qaddafi's regime -- despite calls from some diplomats for sanctions or the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi's air force from being used against protesters in the future.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on February 22 also condemned the use of Libyan military forces against protesters in recent days.

"The United States continues to watch the situation in Libya with alarm," Clinton said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives have been lost and their loved ones, and we join the international community in strongly condemning the violence, as we've received reports of hundreds killed and many more injured."

Backers continue to desert Qaddafi. 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. He joins a slew of diplomats and government officials who have resigned in recent days to distance themselves from Qaddafi's violent crackdowns.

Fleeing Libya

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.

Tens of thousands of foreign workers, meanwhile, 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.

with agency reports


Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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