State forces unleash violence in towns around Tripoli
Forces loyal to the embattled Libyan President, Muammar Qadhafi, are using ruthless force to establish control within a radius of 250 km around Tripoli in a bid to stall the advance of the opposition, which is steadily closing in on the Libyan capital.
Mr. Qaddafi's loyalists have launched a counterattack, deploying heavy weapons, to dislodge the opposition at Zawiya, around 48 km west of the capital. An eyewitness told Al Jazeera television that around 30 cars full of soldiers surrounded the city's “martyrs square” where around a thousand protesters had assembled. According to this account, which could not be corroborated independently because of the media blackout imposed by the regime, the firing continued for around five hours, leading to heavy casualties.
In a phone call later from Zawiya, relayed over state television, Mr. Qadhafi attributed the protests to Osama bin Laden and his followers. He said that intake of drugs and alcohol had led the youth to embark upon “destruction and sabotage” in the country.
In the town of Sabratha, around 80 km to the west of Tripoli, troops were out in force to quell the rebellion. The protesters had torched many buildings, including police stations and structures once occupied by the “revolutionary committees” loyal to Mr. Qadhafi. The town was under lockdown, with shops shuttered and people hunkered down indoors.
However, despite the unbridled force used to keep the corridor west of Tripoli free of the opposition, protesters on Thursday had managed to breach the town of Zuara, around 120 km west of Tripoli.
Protesters were also preparing for anti-regime demonstrations on Friday.
Government forces tried to stall the opposition in the east, with much lesser success. Clashes have been reported around 200 km east of Tripoli near the city of Misurata, over which the protesters' advance has apparently prevailed. By Thursday, anti-regime forces had occupied the eastern Mediterranean coastline from Benghazi to the Ras Lunaf port, not far from Surt, Mr. Qadhafi's hometown.
Analysts say Mr. Qadhafi has relied heavily on African mercenaries and handpicked troops loyal to him in his counterattack. The Khamis brigade under the command of the President's son, Khamis Abu Minyar al-Qaddafi, has been assigned the role of the praetorian guard in defence of the regime.
The Qaddafi government is known to have funded guerrillas based in Darfur, from where they had launched anti-government attacks in neighbouring Chad. Many of these guerrillas were free for deployment inside Libya after tensions between Chad and Sudan had eased.
In an attempt on political consolidation in the east, tribal leaders on Thursday met in Bayda. A former Justice Minister, who had resigned, at the meeting called upon “the world community to protect the Libyan people”. He warned the President could even go to the extent of using biological weapons against his people.
Lt.Col. Omar Hamza, head of an air defence brigade who has defected, said in the east a single operations room had been established to direct the advance towards Tripoli.
Meanwhile, adding momentum to the string of defections, Mr. Qadhafi's cousin and foreign affairs spokesman, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, has defected to Egypt in protest.