Militias loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi fired in the air yesterday to disperse marches by regime opponents defying a fierce clampdown to attempt their first major protest in the Libyan capital Tripoli in days. Across rebellious cities in the east, thousands held rallies in support of the Tripoli protesters.
Protesters streamed out of a mosque in central Tripoli after prayers chanting for Qaddafi’s ouster, and they were confronted by a force of troops and militiamen near Green Square, one witness said.
The militiamen fired in the air, sending some in the anti-Qaddafi crowd running, he said.
“The situation is chaotic in parts of Tripoli now,” he said, adding that armed Qaddafi supporters were also speeding through some streets in vehicles. Other residents reported gunfire heard in other districts of the capital.
The call for regime opponents to march from mosques after prayers was the first attempt to hold a major anti-Qaddafi rally in the capital — the Libyan leader’s biggest remaining stronghold — since bloody clashes on Tuesday night.
SMS messages were sent around urging: “Let us make this Friday the Friday of liberation,” residents said.
Yesterday morning, militiamen set up heavy security around many mosques in the city, intimidating opposition worshipers. Armed young men with green armbands to show their support of Qaddafi set up checkpoints on many streets, stopping cars and searching them. Tanks and checkpoints lined the road to Tripoli’s airport, witnesses said.
Tripoli, home to nearly a third of Libya’s 6 million people, is the center of the territory that remains under Qaddafi’s control after the uprising that began on Feb. 15 swept over nearly the entire eastern half of the country, breaking cities there out of his regime’s hold.
Even in the pocket of northwestern Libya around Tripoli, several cities have also fallen into the hands of the rebellion.
The coastal town of Zawiyah was under the control of anti-government protesters yesterday, a witness said, bringing the popular uprising within 50km of the capital.
There were also other signs that the government’s grip was slipping, as prosecutor-general Abdul-Rahman al-Abbar became the latest senior official to resign, telling al-Arabiya television he was joining the opposition.
In the first practical attempt to enroll the support of citizens since the uprising began, Libyan state television announced the government was raising wages, increasing food subsidies and ordering special allowances for all families.
The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet yesterday to discuss a proposal for sanctions against Qaddafi’s regime.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that “thousands” may have been killed or injured and he called for international intervention to protect civilians.
US President Barack Obama consulted the French, British and Italian leaders late on Thursday to discuss coordinated steps.
Washington said it was keeping all its options open, including sanctions and military action, but coordinated action against Qaddafi still seemed some way off.