Terrified residents braced for bloody battles in Tripoli yesterday as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi offered to arm civilians to defeat a popular revolt that poses the worst threat to his four-decade rule.
The escalating revolt to overthrow Qaddafi, which a Libyan diplomat to the UN said has killed thousands, has seen opponents grab almost the entire east of the country and loyalists embark on shooting sprees in the capital.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country was the former colonial power in Libya, became the first Western leader to spell out that Qaddafi appeared to have lost control of the situation.
“If we can all come to an agreement, we can end this bloodbath and support the Libyan people,” he said.
In Tripoli, witnesses said two of the three five-star hotels were closed and an evacuation had started at the third, the Corinthia.
Libyan Ambassador to the UN Mohammed Shalgham, a childhood friend of Qaddafi, delivered an emotional speech to the Security Council, raising the specter of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, and asking for his country to be saved.
After Shalgham’s speech, one Tripoli resident said by telephone that “people shouted with joy,” but that just a few minutes later the electricity was cut and has not come back since.
“We were terrified. We thought that meant they were preparing for attacks. We grabbed whatever we could use as weapons and stayed by the door in case anyone broke in,” the resident said. “We could still hear gunfire all night.”
Security forces opened fire indiscriminately on worshippers leaving prayers in the Libyan capital on Friday, witnesses said.
Almost the entire east of Libya has slipped from Qaddafi’s control since the popular uprising began in the port city of Benghazi on Feb. 15, inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
In Benghazi, a spokesman for the revolution said yesterday they were drawing up plans for a transitional government to take power.
“We are all waiting for Tripoli to end Qaddafi and his sons’ rule,” Abdelhafiz Ghoqa said.
In the nearby town of Ajdabiya, the main square has been named Liberty Square, but residents said conditions were miserable.
“The situation is bad. The bakeries are closed. Finding food is very hard. I have never seen a happy day in all of my years,” said Idriss Mohamed, who at 42 is as old as the regime.
The UN’s World Food Programme warned on Friday that the food distribution system was “at risk of collapsing” in the mainly desert North African nation that is heavily dependent on imports.
However, Qaddafi appeared determined to fight to the bitter end. Tripoli residents said yesterday he was arming civilian supporters to set up checkpoints and roving patrols around the capital to control movement and quash dissent.
That came a day after Qaddafi’s speech on Friday calling on supporters to defend the nation as he faced the biggest challenge to his 42-year rule, with rebels having seized control of about half of the country’s coastline.
“At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire,” he said.