ZAWIYA, Libya – With residents shouting “Free, free Libya,” anti-government rebels who control this battle-scarred city nearest to the capital deployed tanks and anti-aircraft weapons Sunday to brace for an attack by troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. The Obama administration offered “any type of assistance” to Libyans seeking to oust the longtime leader.
Politicians in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi set up their first leadership council to manage day-to-day affairs, taking a step toward forming what could be an alternative to Gadhafi’s regime.
In the capital of Tripoli, where Gadhafi is still firmly in control, state banks began handing out the equivalent of $400 per family in a bid to shore up public loyalty.
“The Libyan people are fully behind me,” Gadhafi defiantly told Serbian TV, even as about half of the country was turning against him and world leaders moved to isolate him. “A small group (of rebels) is surrounded … and it will be dealt with.”
Gadhafi has launched by far the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of anti-government uprisings sweeping the Arab world, the most serious challenge to his four decades in power. The United States, Britain and the U.N. Security Council all slapped sanctions on Libya this weekend.
A day after President Barack Obama branded Gadhafi an illegitimate ruler who must leave power immediately, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton kept up pressure for him to step down and “call off the mercenaries” and other troops that remain loyal to him.
“We are just at the beginning of what will follow Gadhafi. … But we’ve been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and as the revolution moves westward there as well,” Clinton said. “I think it’s way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we’re going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States.”
Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, in an interview with U.S. television, insisted that his father won’t relinquish power and that Libya had not used force or airstrikes against its own people.
There were no reports of major violence or clashes on Sunday, although gunfire was heard after nightfall in Tripoli.
The regime, eager to reinforce its view that Libya is calm and under its control, took visiting journalists to Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital of Tripoli, on Sunday. The tour, however, confirmed that anti-government rebels control the center of the city of 200,000 people, with army tanks and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks at the ready.
Hundreds of people chanted “Gadhafi out!” in central Zawiya, a key city close to an oil port and refineries.
The charred hulks of cars littered the city, many buildings were pockmarked by bullets, and most streets were blocked by felled palm trees or metal barricades. Police stations and government offices have been torched, and anti-Gadhafi graffiti – labeling him a “mass murderer” – was everywhere. In the main square, an effigy of the leader hung from a light pole with the words “Execute Gadhafi” on its chest.
“To us, Gadhafi is the Dracula of Libya,” said Wael al-Oraibi, an army officer in Zawiya who decided to join the rebels in large part after Gadhafi used mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa against residents of the city.
On Zawiya’s outskirts were pro-Gadhafi forces, also backed by tanks and anti-aircraft guns.
Human rights groups and European officials have put the death toll since unrest began in Libya nearly two weeks ago at hundreds – perhaps thousands – although it has been impossible to verify the numbers.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due in Washington today to discuss with Obama other possible measures that could be taken against the Libyan government.