February 25, 2011

CLASHES SPREAD CLOSER TO TRIPOLI ; U.S. CONSULTS ALLIES ON LIBYA OPTIONS

[The turmoil in Libya continued to disrupt world oil markets and dominate international diplomacy as nations tried to evacuate their citizens and craft a response to the violence. U.S. officials said a ferry chartered to evacuate American citizens to nearby Malta was unable to depart Thursday because of high seas. Swiss officials said they were freezing any possible bank assets of Gaddafi and his close associates. The step was similar to one announced by Swiss authorities against the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt as they were ousted in rebellions.]

By Leila Fadel, Liz Sly and Howard Schneider

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Fighting between Libyan opposition groups and government paramilitary forces moved closer to the capital, Tripoli, on Thursday, as residents braced for a potential push to oust Moammar Gaddafi's regime from the city.

With opposition leaders calling for major protests in Tripoli on Friday, residents said jeeps full of armed fighters were moving into the city from a nearby military barracks.


"Fear, fear, fear," one businessman described the mood in the city. But he predicted a big turnout for the Friday demonstrations. "It's now or never," he said of the effort by opposition groups to extend their rebellion to Gaddafi's stronghold, where forces loyal to the Libyan leader have kept a firm grip on power.

Beyond Tripoli, there were new signs Thursday that what began as a disorganized revolt was gaining strength and coherence. Parallel governments are taking shape in major cities such as Benghazi, about 600 miles west of the capital, with citizen leaders working alongside former government officials and military officers.

As the clashes spread closer to the capital, rebel gains threatened to leave the Libyan leader's stronghold isolated. Forces loyal to Gaddafi appeared to have repelled their opponents in Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli, but residents of Misurata, a major town east of the capital, said that the streets were in rebel hands and that opposition members had rebuffed an attack by regime loyalists.

Gaddafi has vowed to fight to the death to keep his 41-year-old rule intact, and he made a direct appeal to Zawiyah's residents, telling them that protesters had been drugged and were under the influence of al-Qaeda. "Please do not disappoint me," Gaddafi said in a telephone call to the state-run radio station. "Otherwise each will take justice into his own hands to rid us of this darkness."

The turmoil in Libya continued to disrupt world oil markets and dominate international diplomacy as nations tried to evacuate their citizens and craft a response to the violence. U.S. officials said a ferry chartered to evacuate American citizens to nearby Malta was unable to depart Thursday because of high seas. Swiss officials said they were freezing any possible bank assets of Gaddafi and his close associates. The step was similar to one announced by Swiss authorities against the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt as they were ousted in rebellions.

In Washington, President Obama called British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy amid mounting criticism that the administration's quiet diplomacy is doing little to stop the Libyan government's violent reprisals.

A French government statement said Sarkozy and Obama "reiterated their demand for an immediate halt to the use of force against the civilian population." Sarkozy also called for a second urgent session of the U.N. Security Council to demand "immediate access to humanitarian assistance and to sanction those responsible for the violence against Libya's civilian population."

Obama's telephone diplomacy Thursday came on the eve of a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, called to address the revolt in Libya.

The council's European members are expected to lead the push for Libya's expulsion from the panel and support the first step in establishing a U.N.-sanctioned investigation of the violence that could end at the International Criminal Court. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to travel to Geneva on Monday for the council's regular session.

The extent of the fighting in Zawiyah could not be independently verified, but wire services and others, quoting witnesses, reported fierce clashes that included government fighters firing on a mosque where protesters had staged a sit-in. A local doctor quoted by the Associated Press said that at least 10 people were killed. Other reports put the death toll much higher.

With foreign media and observers having only scattered access to the country, details about conditions - particularly in Tripoli - have been sparse. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Gaddafi's son, appeared on state television Thursday and insisted that "life is normal." Reports that hundreds have been killed in the recent clashes were "a joke," he said.

But a different story was unfolding in Benghazi and other rebel-controlled towns. After knowing only the rule of Gaddafi and his clique of family and tribal allies for 41 years, local lawyers, judges and others were rapidly forming oversight committees to keep basic services intact.

With entire units of the Libyan military having defected, there was also discussion of how best to push the rebellion into Tripoli, despite the concentration of Gaddafi's forces, family and top allies there.

Hundreds of young revolutionaries who freed Benghazi from Gaddafi's rule began heading toward Tripoli on Thursday but turned around when they realized it was too dangerous.

Mohammed Hamdi, a painter, was among the thousands of Egyptian workers who have fled Libya across the Tunisian and Egyptian borders in recent days. He said that even suburbs of the capital have become unsafe. Now at a makeshift refugee center in Tunisia, he said that as he left Tripoli on Thursday, a military officer stopped him and seized his cellphone and $300 in cash.

In the capital, "if you go out on the street, you will be attacked," he said.

fadell@washpost.com slyl@washpost.com schneiderh@washpost.com
Sly reported from Cairo and Schneider from Washington. Staff writers Scott Wilson in Washington and Anthony Faiola in Tunisia contributed to this report.

@ The Washington Post
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