Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, has said in a speech on Libyan state television that al-Qaeda is responsible for the uprising in Libya.
“It is obvious now that this issue is run by al-Qaeda,” he said, speaking by phone from an unspecified location on Thursday.
He said that the protesters were young people who were being manipulated by al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, and that many were doing so under the influence of drugs.
“No one above the age of 20 would actually take part in these events,” he said. “They are taking advantage of the young age of these people [to commit violent acts] because they are not legally liable!”
At the same time, the leader warned that those behind the unrest would be prosecuted in the country’s courts.
He called on Libyan parents to keep their children at home.
“How can you justify such misbehaviour from people who live in good neighbourhoods?” he asked.
The situation in Libya was different to Egypt or Tunisia he said, arguing that unlike people in the neighbouring countries, Libyans have “no reason to complain whatsoever”.
Libyans had easy access to low interest loans and cheap daily commodities, he argued. The one reform he did hint might be possible was a raise in salaries.
Mustafa Abdel Galil, who resigned three days ago from his post as the country’s justice minister, spoke to Al Jazeera at a meeting of tribal leaders and representatives of eastern Libya in the city of Al Baida.
“We want one country. There is no Islamic emirate or al-Qaeda anywhere. Our only aim is to liberate Libya from this regime and then people choose the government they want.” the former minister said.
He warned that Gaddafi has biological and chemical weapons, and will not hesitate to use them.
The United Nation’s Human Rights Council will decide whether it will send an international team to investigate the alleged violations of international human rights law in Libya at a meeting in Geneva on Friday.
Gaddafi argued that he was a purely “symbolic” leader with no real political power, comparing his role to that played by Queen Elizabeth II in England.
He also warned that the protests could cut off Libya oil production. “If [the protesters] do not go to work regularly, the flow of oil will stop,” he said.
Ibrahim Jibreel, a Libyan political activist, said that the fact that Gaddafi was speaking by phone showed that he did not have the courage to appear publically, and proved that he remained “under self-imposed house arrest in Tripoli”.
He said there were similarities between Thursday’s speech and one Gaddafi gave earlier in the week.
Jibreel noted Gaddafi’s reference to loans and that he would reconsider salaries. “I think that there [are] some concessions that he wants to make, in his own weird way,” he said.
Gaddafi 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.
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Multiple witnesses told Al Jazeera that protesters were being shot at in the town of Az Zawiyah for much of Thursday by a Libyan army unit led by Gaddafi’s ally, Naji Shifsha.
Az Zawiyah lies on the Mediteranian coast, a few kilometres to the west of Tripoli – where Gaddafi is believed to be hiding. The port town houses the country’s largest oil refinery.
Ali, an eyewitness to the shooting, told Al Jazeera by phone that soldiers began shooting at peaceful protesters on Martyrs’ Square 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’ heads and chests.
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.
In his speech, Gaddafi refered specifically to the protesters in Az Zawiyah, claiming they had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda.
Yet the protesters said they were protesting peaceful protest, and that their demands had nothing to do with al-Qaeda.
“The people here didn’t ask for anything, they just asked for a constitution and democracy and freedom, [the protesters] 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.
Also on Thursday, the army unit blasted the minaret of a mosque being occupied by protesters in Az Zawiyah, according to witnesses.
According to witnesses, pro-Gaddafi forces took control of Misrata late on Thursday after evicting forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi from the Mediterranean coastal city, prompting street celebrations, a witness said.
They told Al Jazeera that “revolutionaries had driven out the security forces”, who had used “heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns”.
Resident Mohamed Senoussi, 41, said protesters had overcome the security forces and taken full control of Misrata, about 200 km (125 miles) east of Tripoli, after a “fierce battle” near its airport.
“Calm returned to the city around four hours ago after intense fighting in the morning … The people’s spirits here are high, they are celebrating and chanting ‘God is Greatest’,” he told Reuters by telephone.
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.
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.
Gaddafi is fast losing the support of his inner circle. His cousin, the country’s ambassador to Jordan and a close aide in Egypt all resigned on Thursday.
Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, one of Gaddafi’s top security official and a cousin, defected on Wednesday evening, 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.
Libyan authorities are working hard to prevent news of the events in the country from reaching the outside world.
Thuraya, a satellite phone provider based in the United Arab Emirates, has faced continuous “deliberate inference” to its services in Libya, the company’s CEO told Al Jazeera.
Samer Halawi, the company’s CEO, said his company will be taking legal action against the Libyan authorities for the jamming of its satellite.
“This is unlawful and this in uncalled for,” he said.
The company’s engineers have had some success in combating the jamming, and operations were back on almost 70 per cent of the Libyan territory on Thursday, Halawi said. The blocking was coming from a location in Tripoli.
The Libyan government has blocked landline and wireless communications, to varying degrees, in recent days.
Some phone services were down again on Thursday. In the town of Az Zawiyah, phone lines were working but internet access was blocked.
Nazanine Moshri, reporting from the northern side of the Tunisian-Libyan border near the town of Ras Ajdir, said that security forces were confiscating cellphones and cameras from people crossing into Tunisia.
“The most important thing to them is to not allow any footage to get across the border into Tunisia,” she reported.
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.
Witnesses in Tripoli have told Reuters that uniformed police were directing traffic as usual, state television was broadcasting and pro-Gaddafi supporters held a rally in the city.
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.
Foreign governments, meanwhile, continue to rush to evacuate their citizens, with thousands flooding to the country’s borders with Tunisia and Egypt.