BENGHAZI, Libya — Protesters demanding Muammar Gaddafi's ouster came under a hail of bullets Friday when pro-regime militiamen opened fire to stop the first significant anti-government marches in days in the Libyan capital. The Libyan leader, speaking from the ramparts of a historic Tripoli fort, told supporters to prepare to defend the nation.
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Witnesses reported multiple deaths from gunmen on rooftops and in the streets shooting at crowds with automatic weapons and even an anti-aircraft gun.
"It was really like we are dogs," one man who was marching from Tripoli's eastern Tajoura district told The Associated Press. He added that many people were shot in the head, with seven people within 10 yards (meters) of him cut down in the first wave.
Also Friday evening, troops loyal to Gaddafi attacked a major air base east of Tripoli that had fallen into rebel hands.
A force of tanks attacked the Misrata Air Base, succeeding in retaking part of it in battles with residents and army units who had joined the anti-Gadhafi uprising, said a doctor and one resident wounded in the battle on the edge of opposition-held Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) from the capital.
The opposition captured two fighters, including a senior officer, and still held part of the large base, they said. Shooting could still be heard from the area after midnight. The doctor said 22 people were killed in two days of fighting at the air base and an adjacent civilian airport.
In Washington, the White House said it was moving forward with plans to impose unilateral sanctions on Libya in response to the regime's bloody crackdown in the 11-day-old uprising. Hundreds have been killed, but rebels have taken control of nearly the entire eastern half of the country, as well as cities close to Gaddafi's stronghold in the capital.
A White House spokesman said it is clear that Gaddafi's legitimacy has been "reduced to zero" – the Obama administration's sharpest words yet. The U.S. also temporarily abandoned its embassy in Tripoli as a final flight carrying American citizens departed from the capital.
The U.N. Security Council met to consider possible sanctions against Gaddafi's regime, including trade sanctions and an arms embargo. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged it take "concrete action" to protect civilians in Libya, saying "the violence must stop" and those responsible for "so brutally shedding blood" must be punished.
But Gaddafi vowed to fight on. In the evening, he appeared before a crowd of more than 1,000 supporters in Green Square and called on them to fight back and "defend the nation."
"Retaliate against them, retaliate against them," Gadhafi said, speaking by microphone from the ramparts of the Red Castle, a Crusader fort overlooking the square. Wearing a fur cap, he shook his fist, telling the crowd: "Dance, sing and prepare. Prepare to defend Libya, to defend the oil, dignity and independence."
He warned, "At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire."
The crowd waved pictures of the leader and green flags as he said, "I am in the middle of the people in the Green Square. ... This is the people that loves Muammar Gaddafi. If the people of Libya and the Arabs and Africans don't love Muammar Gaddafi then Muammar Gaddafi does not deserve to live."
Earlier his son, Seif al-Islam, was asked in an interview with CNN-Turk about the options in the face of the unrest. "Plan A is to live and die in Libya, Plan B is to live and die in Libya, Plan C is to live and die in Libya," he replied.
The marches in the capital were the first major attempt by protesters to break a clampdown that pro-Gaddafi militiamen have imposed on Tripoli since the beginning of the week, when dozens were killed by gunmen roaming the street, shooting people on sight.
In the morning and night before, text messages were sent around urging protesters to stream out of mosques after noon prayers, saying, "Let us make this Friday the Friday of liberation," residents said. The residents and witnesses all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
In response, militiamen set up heavy security around many mosques in the city, trying to prevent any opposition gatherings. Armed young men with green armbands to show their support for Gaddafi set up checkpoints on many streets, stopping cars and searching them. Tanks and checkpoints lined the road to Tripoli's airport, witnesses said.
After prayers, protesters flowed out of mosques, converging into marches from several neighborhoods, heading toward Green Square. But they were hit almost immediately by militiamen, a mix of Libyans and foreign mercenaries.
"We can't see where it is coming from," another protester from Tajoura district – several miles (kilometers) from Green Square – said of the gunfire. "They don't want to stop." He said a man next to him was shot in the neck.
In the nearby Souq al-Jomaa district, witnesses reported four killed as gunmen fired from rooftops. "There are all kind of bullets," said one man in the crowd, screaming in a telephone call to the AP, with the rattle of gunfire audible in the background. Another protester was reported killed in the Fashloum district. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
After nightfall, protesters dispersed, and regime supporters prowled the streets, a resident said. As they have on past nights this week, many blockaded streets into their neighborhoods to prevent militiamen and strangers from entering.
03/11/2011 6:31 PM EST
U.S. Extends Sanctions On Libya
Reports the AP:
The Obama administration extended its Libya sanctions to more Gadhafi family members and close advisers on Thursday, blacklisting business with the Libyan leader's wife, four of his children and his chief of military intelligence.
The Treasury Department froze the assets of nine Libyans in all as part of the strategy to peel off Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers while punishing those who remain loyal to the regime even as it commits human rights violations.
The sanctions come on top of those previously announced by the administration, which accounted for $32 billion in Libyan government assets blocked in the United States.
03/11/2011 5:33 PM EST
Sarkozy Calls For Air Strikes If Gaddafi Attacks Civilians
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for airstrikes against Gaddafi forces if the leader attacks civilians. According to the Guardian:
Nicolas Sarkozy has called for targeted air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime if his forces use chemical weapons or launch air strikes against civilians.
As the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, warned that a no-fly zone could risk civilian lives in Libya, the French president told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes may soon be justified.
"The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters," Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".
03/11/2011 5:06 PM EST
Dutch Helicopter Crew Freed
A Dutch helicopter crew taken captive in Libya has been freed and sent to Greece. The BBC is reporting:
The two men and one woman arrived in Athens on a Greek military transport plane hours after a son of Muammar Gaddafi announced their release.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said Libya would hold on to the crew's Lynx helicopter.
The woman pilot, Yvonne Niersman, took part in a mission last year to free a German ship from Somali pirates.
Ms Niersman and her fellow crew members were captured in Libya after flying in from the Dutch warship Tromp, anchored off the coast.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 4:43 PM EST
McCain Praises Moroccan King
Senator John McCain praised Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his pledge to introduce democratic reforms. According to the AFP:
"This new reform agenda builds on the king's long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain.
03/11/2011 3:40 PM EST
Gaddafi Offers Amnesty To Rebels
Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi is now offering to offer amnesty to those rebels who lay own arms.
03/11/2011 3:28 PM EST
2 Protesters Killed In Tunisia
The AP reports:
Tunisia's Interior Ministry says a new eruption of violence between police and protesters has killed two people and injured 20.
The ministry says on its Facebook page that police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs.
The statement says two protesters were killed in the incident in Metlaoui, a mining town in the center of the Mediterranean country.
The violence comes as Tunisia's interim government is trying to restore stability after deadly protests that drove out longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That prompted uprisings around the Arab world.
03/11/2011 2:39 PM EST
Berlusconi Says Hardline With Gaddafi A Mistake
Berlusconi is saying that the West may have made a mistake by taking a hardline against Gaddafi, which may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner. Reports Reuters:
The hardline stance taken by major powers against Muammar Gaddafi may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner and prevented a quiet exit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday. Speaking after a special meeting of EU leaders, Berlusconi, one of Gaddafi's closest friends in Europe until the current upheaval, said the chances of persuading him to give up power voluntarily now appeared to have disappeared.
"Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don't think anyone can make him change his mind," he told reporters.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 2:16 PM EST
Who Are The Libyan Rebels?
The AP is reporting that the rebels fighting Gaddafi forces are amateurs, but deeply committed to the cause:
Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country's Mediterranean coast.
"I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar," said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.
The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.
Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.
03/11/2011 1:03 PM EST
Gaddafi Forces Show Signs Of Victory
Reports the AP:
Moammar Gadhafi's regime has gained momentum with the capture of a key city near Tripoli after days of fierce fighting with rebels.
The battle for Zawiya has emerged as a key test in the government's ability to maintain its hold on the Libyan capital and surrounding areas.
The government had claimed victory on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was escorted with other journalists into the city on Friday, says the main square that had been the center of resistance is clearly in government control.
03/11/2011 12:47 PM EST
Obama On Libya
Obama noted all of the sanctions and property seizures that have already been implemented against Gaddafi, saying, "Across the board, we are tightening the noose on Gaddafi." He says that NATO is discussing potential military actions in Libya, including a no-fly zone, and will meet on Tuesday. He said that a position will be created for a liaison to speak with Libyan opposition groups. He said that the international community had moved quickly to isolate Gaddafi.
Obama said that no options have been taken off the table so far. In response to a question about whether it would ever be acceptable to the U.S. for Gaddafi to stay in power, Obama stated that "it is in the U.S.' interest and the interest of the Libyan people for Gaddafi to leave." He added, however, that when making a decision to engage militarily, he would weigh the "costs and benefits."