CAIRO, Egypt – Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi offered no concessions to protesters who have shaken his regime by capturing several major cities, denouncing them as drunkards, terrorists and “drug-fueled mice” who should be executed.
But Gadhafi’s tough 75-minute nationwide speech on Tuesday may not save a regime that after four decades in power seemed to be quickly disintegrating. With violence flaring in city after city, and key defections from his inner circle, he appeared out of touch and increasingly out of control.
In the speech, Gadhafi praised one of his closest and most powerful aides, interior secretary and army Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis. Several hours later, however, Younis made clear in his own televised statement that he had joined the opposition, urging “all the armed forces to be at the service of the people … to help them achieve victory.”
Libya has been effectively cleaved in half by the eight-day uprising that has killed at least 300 people. Gadhafi’s regime holds the capital Tripoli and crucial oil fields in the west, analysts said. Hundreds of miles to the east across mostly empty desert, opposition forces control the second-largest city, Benghazi, and the equally rich oil fields in the east.
The opposition claimed its latest prize Tuesday when protesters, arming themselves with weapons seized from police stations and weapons depots, occupied the Mediterranean port of Tobruk, expanding their control to the Egyptian border, according to refugee accounts.
Refugees poured out through border crossings into Egypt and Tunisia. Aid convoys with doctors, medical workers and humanitarian supplies waited in lines to cross into Libya from the Egyptian border crossing at Marsa Matrouh. Blood shortages were said to be critical.
Pounding his fist and shouting, Gadhafi vowed to die a martyr in Libya, and urged his supporters to help crush the uprising.
He threatened to “cleanse Libya house by house” if protesters don’t surrender. “When they are caught they will beg for mercy, but we will not be merciful,” he warned.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the crackdown and called for “an immediate end” to the violence. In a press statement supported by all 15 members, the council called on the Libyan government “to meet its responsibility to protect its population,” to act with restraint, and to respect human rights and international humanitarian law.
Its action left open how much further the council might go later if the violence continues, or worsens, diplomats said. Western nations have been eager to signal to Gadhafi that he will be punished if the street battles intensify. But China and Russia, which have been reluctant to intervene in what they view as other nations’ domestic matters, may resist.
“The callousness with which Libyan authorities and their hired guns are reportedly shooting live rounds of ammunition at peaceful protesters is unconscionable,” said Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters that the crackdown was “completely unacceptable” and must stop. The White House deplored what it called “appalling violence.” The Arab League condemned the violence and demanded an end to restrictions on media coverage in Libya.
Tripoli was reported quiet but tense after two days of clashes. Diplomats and witnesses said the military used fighter jets, helicopter gunships and foreign mercenaries to help put down the protests that raged across the city Monday and early Tuesday.
Regime opponents charged that pro-Gadhafi militias used mortars and other heavy weapons, as well as automatic weapons, in some areas. Photos transmitted from inside Libya showed corpses that appeared riddled with shrapnel or had been blown apart.
Numerous reports from inside Libya suggested militiamen and paid African mercenaries had fired into crowds, sealed off neighborhoods and shot from rooftops to quell the protests. Independent Arab media in Libya said militias were guarding access roads around Tripoli late Tuesday to keep out protesters.
Outside Libya, some of Libya’s top diplomats rushed to distance themselves from Gadhafi. Tripoli’s ambassadors to the U.S., China, India, Malaysia and Bangladesh have now resigned, and the deputy ambassador to the U.N. denounced the attacks as genocide.
“We have never seen a government bomb its own people like this,” Ali Essawi, who quit as envoy to India, told Al-Jazeera. It was impossible to confirm many details of the turmoil inside Libya. The regime has cut most Internet access, telephone lines, cell phone service and other communications to the outside world.
The regime released its first official death toll from the unrest, saying 300 people, including 58 soldiers, had been killed. Nearly half were in Benghazi.
That tally was consistent with outside estimates. Human Rights Watch said at least 295 people were killed, while the International Federation for Human Rights put the toll at between 300 and 400.
Whatever the final figure, the rebellion is the bloodiest so far of the uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks, toppling autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia, and challenging others in Bahrain and Yemen.