Kadafi blocks off Libyan capital after night of violence stuns


From LA Times

Moammar Kadafi uses tanks to deny entry into Tripoli while reportedly deploying mercenaries and supportive civilians to raid homes and clear the streets of protesters. After pro-government forces sprayed gunfire on protesters ‘very few want to demonstrate,’ says one resident.

BenghaziMen paint a Kingdom of Libya flag in Benghazi. The flag, used when Libya gained independence from Italy in 1951, has been used as a symbol of resistance. (Goran Tomasevic, Reuters / February 26, 2011) 

Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo —

Moammar Kadafi retained his stubborn grip on Tripoli on Saturday, blocking entry to the city with military tanks and clearing the streets of protesters with irregular security forces.

Residents reported that the city of more than 1 million people awoke shellshocked by the previous night’s violence, when pro-government forces sprayed gunfire on demonstrators who filled public spaces following prayers.

“Very few people want to demonstrate. There were so many people killed yesterday,” Adel Ben Halim, a 48-year-old merchant in the capital, said in a phone interview. “It was beyond a massacre.”

Ben Halim said the fear was deepened by a reports that Kadafi was using mercenaries and supportive civilians to raid the homes of people using the phone lines to organize or speak with foreign journalists, as well as by the killing that residents saw with their own eyes in the streets.

“Nine people were killed in just 15 minutes in a neighborhood on the east side of the city when eight mercenaries opened the back door [of an ambulance] and started shooting at the crowd,” Ben Halim said. “They used the ambulance for the element of surprise.”

Ben Halim described government forces rushing to collect bodies in the aftermath to take them to unseen locations before family members could count their dead and take their bodies to mosques for safekeeping.

The carnage was foreshadowed in televised address by Kadafi Friday night: “If needed, the arsenals will be open to arm all the Libyan people, all the Libyan tribes. Libya will be red with fire; it will turn into ashes,” the embattled Libyan leader said what was described as a live speech on state television Friday night.

The address aired as his son, Saif Islam Kadafi, prepared to host a group of foreign journalists for a closely monitored trip meant to portray his family as in control.

“If you hear fireworks, don’t mistake it for shooting,” the 38-year-old Kadafi said, according to an account provided by Reuters. “Peace is coming back to our country.”

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But the journalists said Saturday that they observed a desperate crush of people at the airport, fruitlessly pressing against the gate in an effort to leave the country. When the journalists attempted to interview people in the crowd, police and militia members intercepted them and detained at least one photographer.

As they toured the city, they said, they observed long bread lines at the remaining open bakeries, where residents reported steep price hikes of 50% or more.

Meanwhile, the international community stepped up its response to the 10-day Libyan crisis, applying diplomatic pressure and arranging to have foreign nationals evacuated from the country

The U.N. Security Council planned to meet Saturday. Britain, France, Germany and the United States have drawn up a resolution that says the attacks on civilians in Libya could amount to crimes against humanity. The resolution calls for an arms embargo, a travel ban and an assets freeze against the Libyan leader.

American officials moved forward on President Obama’s executive order to freeze assets held by Kadafi and four of his children in the United States. The Treasury Department said the sanctions against Kadafi, three of his sons and a daughter also apply to the Libyan government.

The British Foreign Office said a chartered plane arrived Saturday afternoon in Tripoli with capacity to evacuate up to 148 of its citizens.

“It appears that, effectively, Kadafi no longer controls the situation in Libya,” said Italian PresidentSilvio Berlusconi, the European leader with the closest relationship to Libya.


Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, and Bob Drogin in Cairo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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