Qaddafi Loses Grip in Libya's Eastern Desert

On the ground in the eastern chunk of this oil-rich desert nation, the signs of rebellion are plain to see in the armories of a military base near Baida: Weapons crates lie busted open and empty. Rifles are missing from their racks. Left behind are helmets and gas masks and cleaning kits—things that can't shoot.

For four days, rebels newly armed with anti-aircraft guns and Kalashnikovs battled forces loyal to Libyan strongman Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and commanded by one of his sons. After days of firefights, feints and an ambush on unarmed local sheiks, the regime forces surrendered their hold on the vital local airport Tuesday morning—placing nearly all of eastern Libya outside Qaddafi's control.

The battle for Baida airport is one example of how quickly the tide across Libya has turned against Col. Qaddafi. A brutal crackdown by pro-Qaddafi forces across the country has left at least 300 dead over six days, civil-rights groups say.

On Tuesday, Libya's top policeman, a longtime Qaddafi loyalist, joined the string of diplomats, soldiers and others to abandon their leader of 42 years. In a video aired on the Al Jazeera news channel Tuesday, Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi announced his support for anti-Qaddafi protesters and called on Libya's armed forces to switch loyalties. It was unclear how much influence he has over the key security forces considered die-hard loyalists to the regime, such as the armed revolutionary committees or the military units controlled by Qaddafi's family members.

The defections came as Libya teetered. In the country's eastern half, an anti-Qaddafi stronghold where protests began just last week, only one additional airport, in the region's main city of Benghazi, remained in government control. In the coastal city of Tobruq, also in the east, Libya's historic red, black and green flag, which was barred during Qaddafi's four-decade reign, flew over many buildings. The all-green flag of the Qaddafi regime was nowhere to be seen.

In the capital of Tripoli—a traditional stronghold of Qaddafi's power—the leader publicly defied protesters seeking to end his rule. He vowed to remain in the country "until the end."

"I am not going to leave this land. I will die here as a martyr," he said in a rambling, 80-minute address on state television. He vowed to take back the eastern cities under rebel control and show no mercy to those he says have acted against the nation.

International alarm rose over the crisis, which sent oil prices soaring to the highest level in more than two years on Tuesday and sparked a scramble by European and other countries to get their citizens out of the North African nation. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting that ended with a statement condemning the crackdown, expressing "grave concern" and calling for an "immediate end to the violence" and steps to address the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.

Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel called Qaddafi's speech "very, very appalling," saying it "amounted to him declaring war on his own people." Libya's own deputy ambassador at the U.N., who now calls for Qaddafi's ouster, has urged the world body to enforce a no-fly zone over the country to protect protesters.

"This violence is completely unacceptable," added Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Qaddafi's retaliation has already been the harshest in the Arab world to the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East. Nearly 300 people have been killed, according to a partial count by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In two nights of bloodshed, Tripoli residents described a rampage by pro-Qaddafi militiamen -- a mix of Libyans and foreign mercenaries -- who shot on sight anyone found in the streets and opened fire from speeding vehicles at people watching from windows of their homes.

In a sign of the extent of the breakdown in Qaddafi's regime, one of his closest associates, Abdel Fattah Younis, his interior minister and commander of the powerful Thunderbolt commando brigade, announced in Benghazi that he was defecting and other armed forces should join the revolt.

"I gave up all my posts in response to the February 17 Revolution and my conviction that it has just demands," Younis, who was among the army officers who joined Qaddafi in his 1969 coup, told Al-Jazeera, referring to the date of the start of the protests.

The performance by Qaddafi on state TV Tuesday night went far beyond even the bizarre, volatile style he has been notorious for during nearly 42 years in power. Swathed in brown robes and a turban, wearing reflective sunglasses, he at times screamed, his voice breaking, and shook his fists -- then switched to reading glasses to read from a green-covered law book, losing his train of thought before launching into a new round of shouting.

He spoke from behind a podium in the entrance of his bombed-out Tripoli residence hit by U.S. airstrikes in the 1980s and left unrepaired as a symbol of defiance.

At times the camera panned back to show the outside of the building and its towering monument of a gold-colored fist crushing an American fighter jet. But the view also gave a bizarre image of Qaddafi, waving his arms wildly alone in a broken-down lobby with no audience, surrounded by torn tiles dangling from the ceiling, shattered concrete pillars and bare plumbing pipes.

"Libya wants glory, Libya wants to be at the pinnacle, at the pinnacle of the world," he proclaimed, pounding his fist on the podium. "I am a fighter, a revolutionary from tents. ... I will die as a martyr at the end," he said, vowing to fight "to my last drop of blood."

Qaddafi portrayed the protesters as misguided youths, who had been given drugs and money by a "small, sick group" to attack police and government buildings. He said the uprising was fomented by "bearded men" -- a reference to Islamic fundamentalists -- and Libyans living abroad.

He urged supporters to take to the streets to attack demonstrators, saying police would not interfere.

"Go out and fight them," he added, urging youth to form local committees across the country "for the defense of the revolution and the defense of Qaddafi."

"Forward, forward, forward!" he barked at the speech's conclusion, pumping both fists in the air as he stormed away from the podium. He was kissed by about a dozen supporters, some in security force uniforms. Then he climbed into a golf cart-like vehicle and puttered away.

In New York, Libya's deputy U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi, who has called for Qaddafi to step down, said he had received information that Qaddafi's collaborators have started "attacking people in all the cities in western Libya." He said those being attacked are unarmed. He said Qaddafi was using foreign mercenaries to fight protesters.

"I think the genocide has started now in Libya," Dabbashi said. "The Qaddafi statement was just code for his collaborators to start the genocide against the Libyan people. It just started a few hours ago. I hope the information I get is not accurate but if it is, it will be a real genocide."

Libyans were critical of what they saw as the lack of a forceful international response.

Dabbashi said the Security Council statement was "not strong enough" but was "a good step to stopping the bloodshed."

Qaddafi's call for a popular attack on protesters reflected the deeply unstable nature of the system he has created over his rule -- the longest of any current Arab leader. He has long kept his military and other security forces relatively weak, fearing a challenge to his rule and uncertain of loyalties in a population of multiple tribal allegiances.

So far, the crackdown has been waged chiefly by militias and so-called "revolutionary committees," made up of Libyans and foreign fighters, many hired from other African nations.

Many army units in the east appear to have sided with protesters, and other more institutional parts of his regime have weakened. A string of ambassadors abroad have defected, as has the justice minister.

Protesters claim to control a string of cities, from the Egyptian border in the east -- where guards at the crossing fled -- to the city of Ajdabiya, about 450 miles (725 kilometers) farther west along the Mediterranean coast, said Tawfiq al-Shahbi, a protest organizer in the eastern city of Tobruk.

Ajdabiya is a key city near the oil fields of central and eastern Libya. Protesters and local tribesmen were protecting several of the fields and facilities around the city, said one resident, Ahmed al-Zawi.

Residents are also guarding one of Libya's main oil export ports, Zuweita, and the pipelines feeding into it, he said. The pipelines are off and several tankers that had been waiting in the port to load left empty, said al-Zawi, who said he visited Zuweita on Tuesday morning.

The first major protests to hit an OPEC country -- and major supplier to Europe -- sent oil prices to $95.42 per barrel. Only a small amount of Libya's oil production appeared to have been affected, though analysts fear that revolts will spread to OPEC heavyweights like Iran. Libya holds the most oil reserves in Africa.

Two oil companies on Tuesday suspended production in the country: Italy's Eni -- the biggest energy producer in Libya, producing about a quarter of its exports -- and Spain's Repsol-YPF, which produced 34,777 barrels in the country last year, about 3.8 percent of national output. A string of international oil companies have begun evacuating their expatriate workers or their families.

In the eastern cities of Tobruk and Benghazi, protesters raised the pre-Qaddafi flag of Libya's monarchy on public buildings. Protesters over the weekend overran police stations and security headquarters in Benghazi, taking control of the streets.

In Benghazi, celebratory residents organized themselves into units to protect property and manage traffic after pro-Qaddafi forces fled, said Farag al-Warfali, a banker. A committee was set up to organize and distribute the use of weapons confiscated from government warehouses, recruiting policemen and officers to carry the weapons for city protection, fearing a new attack.

"These are his dying words. He is a criminal and is ready to do anything. But we are ready for him," al-Warfali said of Qaddafi's speech. "Besides, most of his officers have deserted him anyway. He only has the mercenaries left."

Since Sunday, the fiercest fighting has been in Tripoli, the center of Qaddafi's rule.

At least 62 people were killed in violence in the capital since Sunday, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, but it cautioned that that figure came from only two hospitals. That comes on top of at least 233 people killed across the so far in the uprising, counted by the group from hospitals around the country.

Tripoli residents on Tuesday were recovering from the militia rampage through multiple neighborhoods that began the night before and lasted until dawn. Some resident ventured out to find stores open for food, wary of militia attacks.

One man in his 50s said residents of his neighborhood were piling up roadblocks of concrete, bricks and wood to try to slow attackers. He said he had seen several streets with funeral tents mourning the dead.

The night before, he had spent barricaded in his home, blankets over the windows -- sitting with a kitchen knife on the table in front of him -- as militiamen opened fire in nearby districts.

Buses unloaded militia fighters in several locations, he said. Others sped in vehicles with guns mounted on the top, opening fire, including at people watching from windows. "I know of two different families, one family had a 4-year-old who was shot and killed on a balcony in the eastern part of the city, and another lady on the balcony was shot in the head," he said.

He, like other residents, contacted by The Associated Press, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

One of the heaviest battlegrounds was the impoverished, densely populated district of Fashloum. There, militiamen shot any "moving human being" with live ammunition, including ambulances, so wounded were left in the streets to die, one resident said.

He said that as he fled the neighborhood Monday night, he ran across a group of militiamen, including foreign fighters. "The Libyans (among them) warned me to leave and showed me bodies of the dead and told me: `We were given orders to shoot anybody who moves in the place,"' said the resident.

He and other residents described dozens of bodies still in the street at daybreak Tuesday.

The head of the U.N. human rights agency, Navi Pillay, called for an investigation, saying widespread and systematic attacks against civilians "may amount to crimes against humanity."

In the early hours of Wednesday, several Libyan military officers held a news conference with Libyan journalists broadcast on state television in what they described as an effort to set the record straight on a number of issues.

Lt. General Jibril al-Qadiki, an air force pilot, denied reports of airstrikes on civilians and said there had been strikes but only on ammunition warehouses after "rebels" used them. He named four storage area in eastern Libya in desert areas, and insisted there were no people in those areas.

He also accused western countries, including the U.S., of providing logistics to the protesters aiming to "destroy Libya."

The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press contributed to this report.