BENGHAZI, (Reuters) – Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi launched a fierce counter-attack on Thursday, fighting gun battles with rebels who have threatened the Libyan leader by seizing important towns close to the capital.
The opposition were already in control of major centers in the east, including the regional capital Benghazi, and reports that the towns of Misrata and Zuara in the west had also fallen brought the tide of rebellion closer to Gaddafi’s power base.
Gun battles in Zawiyah, an oil terminal 50 km (30 miles) from the capital, left 10 people dead, a Libyan newspaper said.
France’s top human rights official said up to 2,000 people might have died so far in the uprising.
In a rambling appeal for calm, Gaddafi blamed the revolt on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and said the protesters were fueled by milk and Nescafe spiked with hallucinogenic drugs,
Gaddafi, who just two days ago vowed in a televised address to crush the revolt and fight to the last, showed none of the fist-thumping rage of that speech.
This time, he spoke to state television by telephone without appearing in person, and his tone seemed more conciliatory.
“Their ages are 17. They give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe,” Gaddafi said.
A Tripoli resident, who did not want to be identified because he feared reprisals for speaking to the foreign media, told Reuters: “It seems like he realized that his speech yesterday with the strong language had no effect on the people. He’s realizing it’s going to be a matter of time before the final chapter: the battle of Tripoli.”
Forces loyal to the Libyan leader attacked anti-government militias controlling Misrata, Libya’s third-biggest city, 125 miles east of Tripoli, and several people were killed in fighting near the city’s airport.
Soldiers were reported along the roads approaching Tripoli. In Zawiyah, witnesses said pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces were firing at each other in the streets.
“It is chaotic there. There are people with guns and swords,” said Mohamed Jaber, who passed through Zawiyah on his way to Tunisia on Thursday.
Al Jazeera television broadcast pictures of what it said was a burning police station in Zawiyah. A witness told Reuters the Libyan army was present in force.
Anti-government militias were in control of Zuara, about 120 km (75 miles) west of Tripoli. There was no sign of police or military and the town was controlled by “popular committees” armed with automatic weapons.
The uprising has virtually halted Libya’s oil exports, said the head of Italy’s ENI, Libya’s biggest foreign oil operator. The unrest has driven world oil prices up to around $120 a barrel, stoking concern about the economic recovery.
Key Libyan oil and product terminals to the east of the capital are in the hands of rebels, according to Benghazi residents in touch with people in region. The oil and product terminals at Ras Lanuf and Marsa El Brega were being protected, they said, amid fears of attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces.
The desert nation pumps nearly 2 percent of the world’s oil.
World leaders condemned Gaddafi’s bloody crackdown on the week-long revolt, but did little to halt the bloodshed from the latest upheaval reshaping the Arab world.
U.S. President Barack Obama joined western leaders in condemning the violence in Libya.
“It is imperative that the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice,” Obama said. “The suffering and bloodshed are outrageous.”
French Defense Minister Alain Juppe said he hoped Gaddafi was “living his last moments as leader”. British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged the world to increase pressure on Gaddafi.
UP TO 2,000 DEAD
France’s top human rights official said up to 2,000 people could have died in the unrest and he feared Gaddafi could unleash “migratory terrorism” on Europe as his regime collapses.
“The question is not if Gaddafi will fall, but when and at what human cost,” Francois Zimeray told Reuters. “For now the figures we have … more than 1,000 have died, possibly 2,000, according to sources.”
Benghazi, the eastern regional capital where the rebellion started a week ago, is starting to run itself under “people’s committees” as the dust of rebellion settles. In the east of Libya, many soldiers have withdrawn from active service.
A Reuters correspondent in the city was shown about a dozen people being held in a court building who residents said were “mercenaries” backing Gaddafi. Some were said to be African and others from southern Libya.
“They have been interrogated, and they are being kept safe, and they are fed well,” said Imam Bugaighis, 50, a university lecturer now helping organize committees to run the city, adding that they would be tried according to the law, but the collapse of institutions of state meant the timing was not clear.
Angry residents destroyed a barracks compound they said had been used by the mercenaries.
In Tripoli, which remains largely closed to foreign media, locals said they were too scared to go outside for fear of being shot by pro-government forces.
“People have started working today. But that does not mean they are not afraid. But until now, people are moving around,” a resident told Reuters