Cairo/Tripoli, Feb 22 (IANS) Fighter aircraft bombed parts of the Libyan capital where angry anti-government protesters had gathered, witnesses told a TV channel Tuesday, as a defiant Muammar Gaddafi, one of the Arab world’s longest ruling leaders, insisted he was “in Tripoli and not in Venezuela”.
The 68-year-old Gaddafi, who as a young army officer grabbed power in a bloodless coup and has ruled Libya with an iron fist for the past 41 years, in his first TV appearance since the unrest began last week said he was very much in the capital. The announcement came after protesters and security forces clashed in Tripoli for a second night.
“I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs,” Gaddafi told Libyan state TV that mentioned he was speaking outside his house Tuesday.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested Monday that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela. However, Caracas denied it.
Witnesses told Al Jazeera in Tripoli Tuesday that fighter aircraft had bombed parts of the city in fresh attacks. They said that “mercenaries” were firing on civilians.
Ali al-Essawi, who resigned as Libyan ambassador to India, was quoted as saying Tuesday that fighter jets had been used to bomb civilians.
He said live ammunition was being used against protesters. Describing the violence as “a massacre”, the former envoy called on the UN to block Libyan airspace so as to “protect the people”.
Residents of Tajura, a neighbourhood in the east of Tripoli, said that bodies were still lying on the streets from earlier violence.
State television Tuesday termed as “lies and rumours” the allegations that security forces were killing protesters.
As many as 61 people were killed in the capital Monday, said witnesses. The toll, which the US-based Human Rights Watch group had earlier put at 233, has now reportedly risen over 300.
Protests in the oil-rich country began Feb 14, but quickly gathered pace following a crackdown over a “Day of Rage” Feb 17. Demonstrators are said to have seized control of Benghazi city and several towns.
During his 22-second televised appearance, the authoritarian ruler leaned out of a van and held an umbrella.
“I wanted to say something to the youths at the Green Square (in Tripoli) and stay up late with them, but it started raining. Thank god, it’s a good thing,” Al Jazeera quoted Gaddafi as saying.
The anti-government protests in Libya have been inspired by the successful uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia in the west and Egypt in the east.
Tunisia saw a month-long mass unrest which toppled the 23-year rule of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali Jan 14. Barely a fortnight later Jan 25, protests erupted in Egypt and president Hosni Mubarak quit Feb 11. The sweeping unrest has also hit Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan.
The unrest in Libya took a dramatic turn Monday when a huge anti-government march in Tripoli came under attack by security forces using fighter jets and live ammunition, witnesses told Al Jazeera.
“What we are witnessing today is unimaginable. Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead,” said a witness.
“Anyone who moves, even if they are in their car, they will hit you.”
Gaddafi’s son, Seif-al-Islam, 38, a key member in the government, warned of a bloodbath if protesters did not agree to the reforms assured by the government.
A BBC correspondent observed that the Gaddafi regime now seems to be fighting on multiple fronts as it attempted to tackle a growing number of army units that have risen up against the Libyan leader.
Two military aircraft landed in the northeastern city of Benghazi after its pilots refused to bombard the city, shortly after news reports emerged from Malta – the island-state in the Mediterranean not far off from the Libyan coast – about two Libyan fighter jet pilots who sought political asylum there, DPA reported.
An Egyptian-born cleric also reportedly issued an edict, calling for Gaddafi’s death.
“I am issuing a fatwa now to kill Gaddafi. Any army soldier, any man who can shoot this man, he should do it to relieve Libyans of his evil,” Imam Youssef al-Qaradawi was quoted as saying.
A member of the county’s armed forces confirmed to DPA that he and others in the military in Benghazi had joined the protesters and that security forces were fleeing.
Libyan diplomats in different parts of the world have distanced themselves from the brutal crackdown in Libya.
Minister of Justice Mustafa Abdel-Jalil quit over what he described as an “excessive use of force against unarmed protesters”.
Representatives of Libya in the Arab League as well as Libya’s ambassador to India along with a senior diplomat in China have announced their resignation.