The Qadhafi regime in Libya is using African mercenaries, heavy weapons and air power to check the advance of the opposition, which is already in control of the eastern city of Benghazi and is making a serious bid to establish its hold over capital Tripoli.
The government's rearguard action began on Monday, and continued overnight till day-break on Tuesday. Reports quoting eyewitnesses said Libyan and foreign mercenaries first moved to barricade neighbourhoods. Snipers went on rooftops while heavily armed troops in trucks roamed the streets and shot at will. Overhead, helicopters fired at the protesters.
The poor neighbourhood of Fashloum, which has provided ample numbers to the pool of dissidents, was especially targeted. Hospital sources said the casualties, mainly young men aged 17 to 34, bore bullet wounds, mostly to the head, chest or spine. By evening tension gripped the area as a standoff prevailed between the anti-regime youth and Muammar Qaddafi's loyalist militia, accompanied by tribesmen. Seif al-Islam el-Qadhafi, Mr. Qadhafi's son, acknowledged war planes had been used but added they had attacked depopulated ammunition dumps in order to deny weaponry to protesters. However, two senior pilots who had on Monday defected with their planes to neighbouring Malta said they had orders to attack protesters.
Witnesses reportedly attributed the regime's heavy tactical response to the large number of mercenaries that have been deployed. A video posted on Al Jazeera showed African-origin soldiers positioned in the Libyan capital at regular intervals. Opposition leader Gibril Fayez said in a statement on Tuesday that thousands of Africans from Mali and Niger had been brought from the neighbouring Algerian desert to Tripoli to help quell the uprising. He added that Mousa Kosi, a former intelligence head and now Foreign Minister, is heading Libyan security forces. Mr. Qadhafi's son Al-Motassem and Mansour Daw, another loyalist, are leading the other brigades.
The controversial use of force has already fractured the regime's edifice, with judges, senior military officers and several diplomats deciding to abandon ship. It has also generated a flow of refugees towards the Tunisian and Egyptian borders, said Al Jazeera. On Tuesday, freeways leading out of Tripoli were crowded with cars and pedestrians wanting to leave. Bread and fuel was in short supply for those preferring to stay inside.
United Nations human rights head Navi Pillay has called for the “immediate cessation of grave human rights violations committed by Libyan authorities”. She added: “The callousness with which Libyan authorities and their hired guns are reportedly shooting live rounds of ammunition at peaceful protestors is unconscionable.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had spoken to Mr. Qadhafi for over an hour and had “urged him that human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of speech must be fully protected”.
The United Nations Security Council is set to meet later in the day, while the Arab League is also slated to convene an emergency meeting in Cairo on Tuesday.