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Gadhafi goes on TV amid wave of protests

CAIRO (AP) — Deep rifts opened in Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, with Libyan government officials at home and abroad resigning, air force pilots defecting and a bloody crackdown on protest in the capital of Tripoli, where cars and buildings were burned. Gadhafi went on state TV early today to attempt to show he was still in charge.

World leaders expressed outrage Monday at the “vicious forms of repression” used against the demonstrators.

The longest serving Arab leader appeared briefly on TV to dispel rumors that he had fled. Sitting in a car in front of what appeared to be his residence and holding an umbrella out of the passenger side door, he told an interviewer that he had wanted to go to the capital’s Green Square to talk to his supporters, but the rain stopped him.

“I am here to show that I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Don’t believe those misleading dog stations,” Gadhafi said, referring to the media reports that he had left the country. The video clip and comments lasted less than a minute — unusual for the mercurial leader, who is known for rambling speeches that often last hours.

Pro-Gadhafi militia drove through Tripoli with loudspeakers and told people not to leave their homes, witnesses said, as security forces sought to keep the unrest that swept eastern parts of the country — leaving the second-largest city of Benghazi in protesters’ control — from overwhelming the capital of 2 million people.

State TV said the military had “stormed the hideouts of saboteurs” and urged the public to back security forces. Protesters called for a demonstration in Tripoli’s central Green Square and in front of Gadhafi’s residence, but witnesses in various neighborhoods described a scene of intimidation: helicopters hovering above the main seaside boulevard and pro-Gadhafi gunmen firing from moving cars and even shooting at the facades of homes to terrify the population.

Youths trying to gather in the streets scattered and ran for cover amid gunfire, according to several witnesses, who like many reached in Tripoli by The Associated Press spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. They said people wept over bodies of the dead left in the street.

Warplanes swooped low over Tripoli in the evening and snipers took up position on roofs, apparently to stop people outside the capital from joining protests, according to Mohammed Abdul-Malek, a London-based opposition activist in touch with residents.

Gadhafi appeared to have lost the support of at least one major tribe, several military units and his own diplomats, including Libya’s ambassador in Washington, Ali Adjali. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi accused the longest-serving Arab leader of committing genocide against his own people in the current crisis.

The eruption of turmoil in the capital after seven days of protests and bloody clashes in Libya’s eastern cities sharply escalated the challenge to Gadhafi. His security forces have unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. At least 233 people have been killed so far, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. The difficulty in getting information from Libya made obtaining a precise death toll impossible.

Communications to Tripoli appeared to have been cut, and residents could not be reached by phone from outside the country. State TV showed video of hundreds of Gadhafi supporters rallying in Green Square, waving palm fronds and pictures of him.

State TV quoted Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, as saying the military conducted airstrikes on remote areas, away from residential neighborhoods, on munitions warehouses, denying reports that warplanes attacked Tripoli and Benghazi.

Jordanians who fled Libya gave horrific accounts of a “bloodbath” in Tripoli, saying they saw people shot, scores of burned cars and shops, and what appeared to be armed mercenaries who looked as if they were from other African countries.

Many billboards and posters of Gadhafi were smashed or burned along a road to downtown Tripoli, “emboldening” protesters, said a man who lives on the western outskirts of the capital.

Tripoli was largely shut down Monday, with schools, government offices and most stores closed, except for a few bakeries, said residents, who hunkered down in their homes. Armed members of pro-government organizations called “Revolutionary Committees” hunted for protesters in Tripoli’s old city, said one protester named Fathi.

Members of the militia occupied the city center and no one was able to walk in the street, said one resident who lived near Green Square and described a “very, very violent” situation.

“We know that the regime is reaching its end and Libyans are not retreating,” the resident said. “People have a strange determination after all that happened.”

The heaviest fighting so far has been in the east. Security forces in Benghazi opened fire Sunday on protesters storming police stations and government buildings. But in several instances, units of the military sided with protesters.

By Monday, protesters had claimed control of the city, overrunning its main security headquarters, called the Katiba.

Celebrating protesters raised the flag of Libya’s old monarchy, toppled in 1969 in a Gadhafi-led military coup, over Benghazi’s main courthouse and on tanks around the city.

“Gadhafi needs one more push and he is gone,” said lawyer Amal Roqaqie.

Fire raged Monday at the People’s Hall in Tripoli, the main building for government gatherings where the country’s equivalent of a parliament holds sessions several times a year, the pro-government news website Qureyna said.

It also reported the first major sign of discontent in Gadhafi’s government, saying Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil resigned to protest the “excessive use of force” against unarmed demonstrators.

There were reports of ambassadors abroad defecting. Libya’s former ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who resigned his post Sunday to side with protesters, demanded Gadhafi and his commanders and aides be put on trial for “the mass killings in Libya.”

“Gadhafi’s regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people,” al-Houni said in a statement.

A Libyan diplomat in China, Hussein el-Sadek el-Mesrati, told Al-Jazeera, “I resigned from representing the government of Mussolini and Hitler.”

A protest march Sunday night sparked scenes of mayhem in the heavily secured capital. Protesters had streamed into Green Square, all but taking over the plaza and surrounding streets in the area between Tripoli’s Ottoman-era old city and its Italian-style downtown.

That was when the backlash began, with snipers firing from rooftops and militiamen attacking the crowds, shooting and chasing people down side streets, according to witnesses and protesters.

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