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Africa
Gaddafi struggles to keep control
Pro-democracy protesters take over eastern part of the country, as state structure appears to be disintegrating.
Last Modified: 24 Feb 2011 12:15 GMT

Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, is struggling to maintain his authority in the country, as major swathes of territory in the east of the vast North African country now appear to be under the control of pro-democracy protesters.

On Thursday, state television reported that he was due to make a public address to residents of Az Zawiyah, a town that saw fierce clashes between pro- and anti-government forces through the day.

Ali, an eyewitness to the shooting, told Al Jazeera by phone that soldiers began shooting at the protesters with heavy artillery at around 6am and had continued for 5 hours.

"They were trying to kill the people, not terrify them," he said, explaining that the soldiers had aimed at the protesters' head and chest.

He estimated as many as 100 protesters had been killed. Approximately 400 people had been injured and were now in the town's hospital. He said he had filmed the bodies after the shooting had stopped, but was unable to send the footage because internet access has been cut off.

"The people here didn't ask for anything, they just asked for a constitution and democracy and freedom, they didn't want to shoot anyone," he said.

Gunfire could be heard in the background as Ali spoke, and he said the protesters were expecting the soldiers to launch another direct attack on Martyrs' Square later in the evening.

Despite the risk of more shooting, he said he and the other protesters would continue their protest, even if it cost their lives.

Earlier, a Libyan army unit led by Gaddafi's ally, Naji Shifsha, blasted the minaret of a mosque being occupied by protesters in Az Zawiyah, according to witnesses. They said that protesters had sustained , but exact figures remain unclear.

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According to witnesses, pro-Gaddafi forces also attacked the town of Misrata, which was under the control of protesters. They told Al Jazeera that "revolutionaries had driven out the security forces", who had used "heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns".

They said the pro-Gaddafi forces were called the "Hamza brigade".

Similar clashes have also been reported in the cities of Sabha in the south, and Sabratha, near Tripoli, which is in the west.

Also on Thursday, anti-government protesters appeared to be in control of the country's eastern coastline, running from the Egyptian border through to the cities of Tobruk and Benghazi, the country's second largest city.

Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, said on Wednesday that protesters also held the city of Cyrenaica.

Other towns that appear to no longer be under Gaddafi's control include Derna and Bayda, among others across the country's east.

Reuters news agency, quoting Egyptian nationals fleeing the town of Zoura in the country's west, reported that anti-government protesters had taken over the city.

Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, one of Gaddafi's top security official and a cousin, defected on Wednesday, saying in a statement issued by his Cairo office that he left the country "in protest and to show disagreement" with "grave violations to human rights and human and international laws".

Al-Dam was travelling to Syria from Cairo on a private plane, sources told Al Jazeera. He denied allegations that he was asked to recruit Egyptian tribes on the border to fight in Libya and said he went to Egypt in protest against his government's used of violence.

'People in control'

Soldiers in the cities controlled by the protesters have switched sides, filling the void and no longer supporting Gaddafi's government. In a statement posted on the internet, army officers stationed in Misurata pledged their "total support" for the protesters.

Major-General Suleiman Mahmoud, the commander of the armed forces in Tobruk, earlier told Al Jazeera that the troops led by him had switched loyalties.

"We are on the side of the people," he said. "I was with him [Gaddafi] in the past but the situation has changed - he's a tyrant."

Thousands gathered in Tobruk to celebrate their taking of the city on Wednesday, with Gaddafi opponents waving flags of the old monarchy, honking cars and firing in the sky.

"In 42 years, he turned Libya upside-down," said Hossi, an anti-government protester there. "Here the leader is a devil. There is no one in the world like him."

Armed opponents of the government are also patrolling the highway that runs along the country's Mediterranean coast. Al Jazeera's correspondent said that even in the towns under anti-government forces' control, gangs of pro-Gaddafi militias had been reported to be roaming the streets at night.

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"From what I've seen, I'd say the people of eastern Libya are the one's in control," Hoda Abdel-Hamid, Al Jazeera's correspondent who is in Libya, reported. She said that no Libyan officials had been manning the border where Al Jazeera's team crossed into the country.

Capital paralysed

Tripoli, the Libyan capital, meanwhile, is said to be virtually locked down, and streets remained mostly deserted, even though Gaddafi had called for his supporters to come out in force on Wednesday and "cleanse" the country from the anti-government demonstrators.

Libyan authorities said food supplies were available as "normal" in the shops and urged schools and public services to restore regular services, although economic activity and banks have been paralysed since Tuesday.

London-based newspaper the Independent reported, however, that petrol and food prices in the capital have trebled as a result of serious shortages.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi's son, said on Thursday that an international investigation committee and media will be invited to tour Tripoli. During a tour of a state television channel, he emphasised that life was "normal" in the city.

On Wednesday, an army general told Al Jazeera that two pilots had ejected from their air force jet near the town of Agdabia after refusing to bomb civilians in Benghazi, which has been a stronghold of the anti-government protesters.

In addition to desertions by many army troops, Gaddafi has also been faced with several diplomats in key posts, as well as cabinet ministers, refusing to recognise his authority and calling for him to be removed.

Hundreds killed

Foreign governments, meanwhile, continue to rush to evacuate their citizens, with thousands flooding to the country's borders with Tunisia and Egypt. The United States, Britain, France, Italy, Turkey, China, France and India, among others, have made arrangements for their nationals to leave the country.

James Bays, Al Jazeera's correspondent, reported that there was "a desperate scene at Tripoli's airport". He said that there was a "log-jam" there, with some saying that they have been trying to leave the country for three days.

"The airport is still very firmly under the control of Gaddafi's people," he reported, adding that secret police are patrolling the area, and several checkpoints have been set up on the road leading there.

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights put the number of people killed at 640, though Nouri el-Mismari, a former protocol chief to Gaddafi, and Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, put the number closer to 1,000.

Denying these figures as "fabrications," the Libyan interior ministry on Wednesday said the death toll since the violence began is only 308 people.

Since making statements against Gaddafi, el-Mismari's lawyer has said that his daughters, who live in Libya, were "abducted ... and forcibly taken to the [state] television [station] to deny their father's statements".

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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