Cairo/Tripoli, Feb 22 (IANS) Scotching rumours, a defiant Muammar Gaddafi, one of Arab world’s longest ruling leader, appeared on the state TV and insisted he was “in Tripoli and not in Venezuela” Tuesday, a day after a bloody crackdown saw the military launch an airstrike on protesters.
The 68-year-old Gaddafi, who as a young army officer grabbed power in a bloodless coup has ruled Libya with iron fist for the past 41 years, made his first TV appearance since the unrest began last week. It 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.
The unrest in Libya has turned violent with the US-based Human Rights Watch group putting the number of killed to at least 233. Unconfirmed reports gave a much higher toll.
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 th west and Egypt in the east.
unisia 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 with tens of thousands of demonstrators seeking president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Mubarak quit Feb 11. The sweeping unrest has also hit Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan.
The unrest took a dramatic turn when a huge anti-government march in Tripoli Monday afternoon 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.
Al Arabiya online, citing witnesses, reported that more than 150 people were killed during Monday’s clashes between pro-democracy protesters and Gaddafi’s supporters in Tripoli alone.
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 TV channel aired video footage showing people killed in the city of Benghazi, where the protests had initially started and significantly gained momentum. It said they were killed by the “Abu Omar Brigade” which is responsible for protecting the Gaddafi family.
Fighting in Tripoli erupted, following similar protests in Benghazi. Protesters managed to take over the embattled eastern city after violence left hundreds dead.
Police stations and TV stations were set on fire Monday, as well as the People’s Hall, the main government building in the Libyan capital where parliament meets.
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.
He said that around 400 people were killed in the city during last week’s clashes.
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.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was “time to stop this unnacceptable bloodshed” in Libya.
Libya is one of the major oil producing countries in Africa and the unrest has spiked global crude prices.