Residents of Libya’s dissident-held east, frenzied by a deadly crackdown by Muammar Qaddafi’s crumbling regime, vowed yesterday to march on the capital Tripoli as a string of towns famous as World War II battlegrounds fell under their control.
With big chunks of the army defecting to the protest movement leaving much of the east outside government control, top commanders lined up to talk to foreign correspondents newly able to access a country ruled with an iron fist since Qaddafi came to power in a 1969 coup.
US President Barack Obama described the scorched earth response of the regime’s remaining loyalists as “outrageous,” leading a global outcry over a death toll now running into the hundreds.
World governments scrambled to evacuate stranded nationals from an oil-rich country falling into mounting lawlessness as world crude prices soared.
Eastern towns, from the Egyptian border through the Allied-Axis battlefield town of Tobruk to Libya’s second city of Benghazi, have fallen to local militias or mutinous troops, residents said.
The streets of one of the major towns in the east, Al-Baida, were calm yesterday morning, but shuttered shopfronts still bore the bullet holes of recent fighting.
“Our goal now is Tripoli,” one protester told a town hall meeting addressed by defecting generals. “If Tripoli cannot liberate itself.”
The streets of the capital were deserted yesterday morning after persistent gunfire in the eastern suburbs through the night.
The authorities began a clean-up operation painting over anti-regime graffiti on the walls of Tripoli with pro-government slogans.
A dozen army and police commanders came forward in Al-Baida to pronounce their support for the popular revolt, each being wildly applauded by the crowd.
“I have left my job and come to Al-Baida in solidarity with my people,” said police General Salah Mathek, a Criminal Investigation Division chief. “I will be at the forefront of confronting any attack from outside. They say I am a traitor, but I have principles.”
General Abdul Aziz al-Busta said he had refused orders to fire on civilians as the uprising erupted last week, inspired by the fall of veteran strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia.
“They asked us to confront the people and I refused. We cannot use our weapons on our young,” he said.
There were unconfirmed reports of continued fighting in the town of Misrata, about 150km east of Tripoli.
Loyalist police and troops had deserted the town of Zouara, 120km west of the capital, which was in the hands of anti-government militias, witnesses said.
Residents in Al-Baida spoke of a bloodbath as the regime tried to cling on to power in the eastern Cyrenaica region, long a bastion of dissent.
“They fired at us randomly in the city center. They even fired at people trying to help us,” said a 27-year-old who was shot in the thigh.