CAIRO, Egypt – After anti-government unrest spread to the Libyan capital of Tripoli and protesters seized military bases and weapons Sunday, Moammar Gadhafi’s son went on state television to proclaim that his father remained in charge with the army’s backing and would “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.”
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, in the regime’s first comments on the six days of demonstrations, warned the protesters that they risked igniting a civil war in which Libya’s oil wealth “will be burned.”
The speech followed a fierce crackdown by security forces who fired on thousands of demonstrators and funeral marchers in the eastern city of Benghazi in a bloody cycle of violence that killed 60 people on Sunday alone, according to a doctor in one city hospital. Since the six days of unrest began, more than 200 people have been killed, according to medical officials, human rights groups and exiled dissidents.
Libya’s response has been the harshest of any Arab country that has been racked by the protests that toppled long-serving leaders in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. But Gadhafi’s son said his father would prevail.
“We are not Tunisia and Egypt,” he said. “Moammar Gadhafi, our leader, is leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him.
“The armed forces are with him. Tens of thousands are heading here to be with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet,” he said in a rambling speech that lasted nearly 40 minutes.
Although the elder Gadhafi did not appear, his son has often been put forward as the regime’s face of reform.
Western countries have expressed concern at the rising violence against demonstrators in Libya. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he spoke to Seif al-Islam by phone and told him that the country must embark on “dialogue and implement reforms,” the Foreign Office said.
In his speech, the younger Gadhafi conceded the army made some mistakes during the protests because the troops were not trained to deal with demonstrators, but he added that the number of dead had been exaggerated, giving a death toll of 84.
He offered to put forward reforms within days that he described as a “historic national initiative” and said the regime was willing to remove some restrictions and begin discussions for a constitution. He offered to change a number of laws, including those covering the media and the penal code.
Dressed in a dark business suit and tie, Seif al-Islam wagged his finger frequently as he delivered his warnings. He said that if protests continued, Libya would slide back to “colonial” rule. “You will get Americans and European fleets coming your way and they will occupy you.”
He threatened to “eradicate the pockets of sedition” and said the army will play a main role in restoring order.
“There has to be a firm stand,” he said. “This is not the Tunisian or Egyptian army.”
Protesters had seized some military bases, tanks and other weapons, he said, blaming Islamists, the media, thugs, drunks and drug abusers, foreigners – including Egyptians and Tunisians.
He also admitted that the unrest had spread to Tripoli, with people firing in central Green Square before fleeing.
The rebellion by Libyans frustrated with Gadhafi’s more than 40 years of authoritarian rule has spread to more than a half-dozen eastern cities – but also to Tripoli, where secret police were heavily deployed on the streets of the city of 2 million.
Armed security forces were seen on rooftops surrounding central Green Square, a witness said by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The witness added that a group of about 200 lawyers and judges were protesting inside a Tripoli courthouse, which was also surrounded by security forces.
An exiled opposition leader in Cairo said hundreds of protesters were near the Bab al-Aziziya military camp on Tripoli’s outskirts where Gadhafi lives. The Internet has been largely shut down, residents can no longer make international calls from land lines and journalists cannot work freely, but eyewitness reports trickling out of the country suggested that protesters were fighting back more forcefully against the Middle East’s longest-serving leader.
“We are not afraid. We won’t turn back,” said a teacher who identified herself only as Omneya. She said she was marching at the end of the funeral procession on a highway beside the Mediterranean and heard gunfire from just over a mile away.
“If we don’t continue, this vile man would crush us with his tanks and bulldozers. If we don’t, we won’t ever be free,” she said.
Protesters throwing firebombs and stones got on bulldozers and tried to storm a presidential compound from which troops had fired on the marchers, who included those carrying coffins of the dead from Saturday’s unrest in the eastern city, a witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisal. The attempt was repulsed by armed forces in the compound, according to the witness and the official JANA news agency, which said a number of attackers and solders were killed.
Later, however, a Benghazi resident said he received a text message that an army battalion that appeared to be sympathetic to the demonstrators and led by a local officer was arriving to take over control of the compound, and urging civilians to get out of the way.
In another key blow to Gadhafi, the Warfla tribe – the largest in Libya, has announced it is joining the protests, said Switzerland-based Libyan exile Fathi al-Warfali. Although it had long-standing animosity toward the Libyan leader, it had been neutral for most of the past two decades.
Gadhafi has been trying to bring his country out of isolation, announcing in 2003 that he was abandoning his program for weapons of mass destruction, renouncing terrorism and compensating victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Those decisions opened the door for warmer relations with the West and the lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions. But Gadhafi continues to face allegations of human rights violations. Gadhafi has his own vast oil wealth and his response to protesters is less constrained by any alliances with the West than Egypt or Bahrain, both important U.S. allies.