Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is believed to have fled the capital Tripoli after anti-government demonstrators breached the state television building and set government property alight.
Protesters appear to have gained a foothold in Tripoli as banks and government buildings were looted while demonstrators have claimed they have taken control of the second city Benghazi.
It is thought up to 400 people may have died in the unrest with dozens more reported killed in Tripoli overnight as protests reached the capital for the first time and army units were said to have defected to the opposition.
The Libyan justice minister has now resigned in protest at the ‘excessive use of violence’ against the protesters, according to the Quryna newspaper.
As Europe and the U.S. condemned the regime’s handling of the unrest, Gaddafi’s son Saif said his family would ‘fight until the last bullet’.
More than 300 victims were massacred – many by foreign mercenaries – during the government crackdown in Libya’s second city, Benghazi.
Protesters were gunned down in the streets, with reports that helicopter gunships and snipers were used to suppress the uprising.
The state TV headquarters in the capital Tripoli were also damaged during protests on Sunday while the AFP news agency reported several public buildings had been set alight.
Al Jazeera television quoted medical sources as saying 61 people had been killed in the latest protests in Tripoli.
It said security forces were looting banks and other government institutions in Tripoli, and protesters had broken into several police stations and wrecked them.
The building where the General People’s Congress, or parliament, meets when it is in session in Tripoli was on fire on Monday morning while demonstrators also set light to the headquarters of the Olympic committee.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator’s son, gave a defiant address on state television last night saying his family’s ‘spirits are high’ and warning: ‘We will eradicate them [enemies] all’.
He said Libya’s oil reserves would be ‘burned by thugs, criminals, gangs and tribes’ and said the populace would be left in poverty.
Libyan protesters and security forces battled for control of Tripoli’s city centre overnight, with snipers opening fire and Muammar Gaddafi supporters shooting from speeding vehicles, witnesses have said.
The protests appear to be the heaviest in Libya’s capital after days of deadly clashes in eastern cities.
Three witnesses say protesters moved into Tripoli’s central Green Square and nearby squares last night. Plain-clothes security forces and militiamen attacked in clashes that lasted until dawn.
One witness said snipers opened fire from rooftops. Two others said gunmen in vehicles with photos of Col Gaddafi sped through, opening fire and running people over. The witnesses reported seeing casualties, but the number could not be confirmed.
It has also been reported that 17 were wounded when Libyans stormed a South Korean-operated construction site 18 miles from the capital, with two Bangladeshi workers stabbed.
Output at one of the country’s oil fields was reported to have been stopped by a workers’ strike and some European oil companies withdrew expatriate workers and suspended operations.
With autocratic governments already toppled by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, there was a sense that Gaddafi’s iron grip was being severely tested.
‘Libya is the most likely candidate for civil war because the government has lost control over part of its own territory,’ said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, protesters appeared to be largely in control after forcing troops and police to retreat to a compound. Government buildings were set ablaze and ransacked.
‘People here in Benghazi are laughing at what he is saying. It is the same old story (on promised reform) and nobody believes what he says,’ a lawyer in Libya’s second city told the BBC after watching Saif al-Islam’s speech.
‘Youths with weapons are in charge of the city. There are no security forces anywhere,’ University of Benghazi professor Hanaa Elgallal told Al Jazeera International television.
Salahuddin Abdullah, a self-described protest organiser, said: ‘In Benghazi there is celebration and euphoria … The city is no longer under military control. It is completely under demonstrators’ control.’
In Al Bayda, a town about 200 km (125 miles) from Benghazi, which was the scene of deadly clashes last week between protesters and security forces, a resident told Reuters protesters were also in command.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, as he flew into Egypt on a surprise visit, launched an angry attack on the treatment of protesters in Libya.
‘Our message, as it has been throughout this – I think we have been extremely consistent in saying that the response to the aspirations people are showing on the streets of these countries must be one of reform not repression,’ he said.
‘We can see what is happening in Libya which completely appalling and unacceptable as the regime is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see that country – which is one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic – make progress.
‘The response they have shown has been quite appalling.’
The worst unrest of Gaddafi’s 41-year rule comes seven years after Tony Blair’s controversial Deal in the Desert, when the Labour Prime Minister ushered Libya in from the cold in exchange for billions in British business deals.
Britain has faced growing condemnation over its courting of Gaddafi after the Libyan dictator ordered the slaughter of hundreds of his own people.
The United Nations and the U.S. Ambassador to London questioned the UK’s cosy trade links with Tripoli yesterday.
British weapons are believed to have been used to murder more than 300 Libyan pro-democracy demonstrators.
Relatives of those killed during the Lockerbie massacre condemned the ‘shameful’ British dealings with Gaddafi.
And Mona Rishmawi, legal adviser for the UN High Commission on Human Rights, warned that Britain might be guilty of ‘complicity’ in the killings.
Since sanctions were lifted in 2004, UK firms have sold sniper rifles, tear gas, wall-breaching projectile launchers and crowd control ammunition to a regime found guilty of ordering the Lockerbie bombing, Britain’s worst terrorist atrocity.
It paved the way for the near doubling of exports to Libya, worth almost £500million in 2009 alone.
Mr Blair’s deal is widely seen as having paved the way for the controversial release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.
But critics point out that the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, shot dead in London by a Libyan diplomat in 1984, has still gone unpunished.
Foreign Secretary William Hague revoked all trade licences to the regime on Saturday.
Today he said the Libyan ambassador would be summoned to the Foreign Office to be told ‘in the strongest terms our absolute condemnation of the use of lethal force against demonstrators’.
He said that Britain was calling an immediate immediate end to the violence and the killing of protesters, and for all parties to act in ‘a restrained and humane manner’.
There should be a full investigation into the events in Benghazi and eastern Libya with a commitment that those responsible will be held accountable.
‘The world is watching Libya, with mounting concern,’ Mr Hague added.
‘The Libyan government should be in no doubt that it will be held accountable by the international community for its actions.
‘The Libyan government’s refusal to recognise the extent of their people’s concerns and disregard for their safety undermines their credibility. The Libyan government must take responsibility for the safety of its people.’
French government spokesman Francois Baroin said today the international community must do everything it can do prevent Libya sinking into civil war,
‘We’re extremely worried and shocked and we strongly condemn what’s happening, this unprecedented violence, which could descend into an extremely violent and lengthy civil war,’ Mr Baroin said in an interview on Europe 1 radio.
‘The repression has begun and everything must be done at diplomatic level to coordinate the American and European positions to prevent something drastic happening.’
France’s European Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez said French nationals in Libya are urged to leave the country and added French schools there would be closed immediately.
The United States said it was weighing ‘all appropriate actions’ in response to the unrest.
‘We are analysing the speech … to see what possibilities it contains for meaningful reform,’ a U.S. official told Reuters.
Today in Brussels Mr Hague will urge other European leaders to voice their condemnation.
As recently as January 28, the Government’s UK Trade and Investment body was trumpeting ‘business opportunities in Libya’.
At least 150 British firms operate in Libya, including British Airways, Bhs, Marks & Spencer, Monsoon Accessorize, HSBC, Corus International, KPMG, GSK, AstraZeneca, JCB, Rentokil, Ernst & Young, PWC, Land Rover, Mott MacDonald, AMEC and Biwater.
BP landed a £1.3billion gas and oil deal and a further £545million project to drill for oil.
Shell is also a huge investor in the country and British imports of Libyan oil have topped £1billion in recent years.
The UN’s Mona Rishmawi said there was a ‘real question mark’ over selling weapons to regimes such as Gaddafi’s.
‘We are very concerned about any possibility of complicity in human rights violations,’ she said.
Louis Susman, the U.S. Ambassador to London, told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘I would suggest that to deal with [Gaddafi] to give him greater stature, greater ability on the world front to look like he is a good citizen is a mistake.’
Susan Cohen, whose student daughter Theodora died in the Lockerbie bombing, said Britain must share some of the blame for the massacre in Libya.
‘This is what you get for appeasement,’ she said. ‘The dreadful bloodshed we are seeing on the streets of Libya is in part due to the disgusting behaviour of the British government.’
Lucinda Lavelle, secretary of the British Libyan Solidarity Campaign, said Britain’s whole process of rapprochement with Libya was based on a false premise.
‘Now we have all the evidence we need – Gaddafi has not changed one iota,’ she said. ‘He is still a vicious, brutal dictator who will murder anybody who stands in his way.’
A spokesman for Tony Blair said he was ‘shocked and appalled’ by the violence in Libya and ‘continues to urge a political process of change’.
As unrest continues across the region, Yemen’s president rejected demands that he step down and said Monday that the widespread demonstrations against his regime were unacceptable acts of provocation, though he renewed calls for talks with the protesters.
After a week and a half of marches that have left nine dead, President Ali Abdullah Saleh told a news conference that he ordered the army to fire at demonstrators ‘only in case of self-defence’.
Saleh has ruled the poorest of the world’s Arab countries for three decades but the widespread demonstrations are putting heavy pressure on the U.S. ally.
Brute who surrounds himself with beauty
While the deaths in Benghazi are deeply shocking, they are absolutely in line with the brutal regime that has kept Muammar Gaddafi in power for over 40 years.
This is a country where more than 1,200 prisoners at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison are believed to have been massacred in a single month in 1996.
And where, more recently, there have been regular reports of prisoners being tortured, whipped, raped and executed without a fair trial.
Blocking social networking sites and suspending internet services, as the Libyan authorities have done over recent days, is nothing for an increasingly oppressive regime which tortures those who speak their mind freely and keeps an iron grip on the media.
But whatever the brutalities handed out by his army and secret police, Gaddafi has – until recently – always managed to remain aloof.
Charismatic and wildly unpredictable – almost to the point of madness – this is a man who clearly loves the company of beautiful young women (as illustrated by the 40 beauties of the notorious Amazonian Guard who act as his personal bodyguards) and yet leads one of the most conservative Islamic states in the Arab world.
That contradiction could prove to be a leading cause of his downfall.
The members of the Amazonian Guard have to be virgins. These brutal beauties are reportedly trained in martial arts and the use of firearms at a special academy, where they are turned into lethal and blindly loyal killers.
Gaddafi’s conflicting passions for women and for Islam were typified on a state visit to Italy in 2009 when – having hit the headlines by paying 500 of Italy’s most beautiful models to attend a party – he confounded expectations by simply handing each of them a copy of the Koran and a signed copy of his famous Green Book, setting out his political philosophies and beliefs.
Although difficult to pin down, these can be described as a sort of Islamic socialism.
The book is studied in Libya’s schools and universities and is central to a cult of personality almost akin to brain-washing.
Until this week’s demonstrations, Gaddafi had hoped it would propel his favoured second son, Saif, into power at some point.
Gaddafi couldn’t be any more unpopular in his own country than he is now – but that certainly wasn’t always the case.
When, as a 27-year-old Army captain, he led the military coup which deposed Libya’s King Idris in 1969, it was so on a wave of popular support. And for the best part of two decades he stayed popular, using the profits from Libya’s oil fields to improve education, healthcare and infrastructure.
In a huge country – the fourth-largest in Africa – rich in oil and minerals and yet with a population of no more than 7million, improving overall living standards wasn’t too difficult for a while.
The United Nations trade sanctions, however, declared in 1992 after Libya was accused of being involved with the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, changed all that.
Unemployment is near 30 per cent in some regions and poverty is widespread. The ruling elite has become corrupt and remote, and Gaddafi’s regime has become ever harsher to keep him in power.
Libya today is a very dangerous place, where human rights abuses have become commonplace.
Just as in Egypt and Tunisia, ordinary Libyans are now rebelling against this sort of autocratic dictatorship.
The crucial difference here, though, is that Libya’s police and armed forces – fiercely loyal to their leader – won’t stand idly by.
Gaddafi might yet go but not without considerably more blood being spilt.
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