Gadhafi defiant as NATO declares his ‘regime is crumbling’

A NATO spokeswoman said Sunday that Moammar Gadhafi’s “regime is crumbling,”  though the longtime Libyan ruler remained defiant in urging his countrymen to join him to stop “colonizers” and predicting an imminent “victory.”

“I am with you in this fight. We will not give up,” Gadhafi said in audio remarks broadcast on Libyan state television Sunday, speaking after the rebels’ Transitional National Council political affairs chief Faithi Baja claimed that fighters were “inching” toward the leader’s compound.

“The colonizers are trying to colonize the city of Tripoli, so they come with their army to invade our beloved Libya,” Gadhafi said, “but we will not allow them to do so until the last blood drops from every man and woman.”

But NATO — which, under a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force to protect Libyan civilians, has conducted 7,549 strike sorties in Libya since the end of March — said that the conflict’s end is near.

Libyan anchor waves gun on the air

“The territory (Gadhafi) controls is shrinking fast, his closest allies are packing their bags, and the people of Tripoli are rising,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “The sooner he realizes he cannot win, the better — so that the Libyan people can be spared further bloodshed and suffering.”

Gunfire crackled and explosions rocked the capital Sunday night, as the six-month-long conflict finally approached Gadhafi’s doorstep. A Libyan government official said 376 were killed and nearly 1,000 wounded in fighting that began a night earlier.

Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman based at the Joint Forces Command in Naples, Italy, said the situation was “very dynamic and very tense” Sunday after a spate of mostly small-scale skirmishes in downtown Tripoli and near the sea. While there was no sense of massive encounters, there were large movements of troops by both sides outside the city.

“Gadhafi is clearly losing his capabilities, and I think we all know how this will end. We just don’t know when,” said Lavoie. “He still has some command and control, as we saw a SCUD missile fired yesterday, so let’s not conclude it is over.”

A timeline of the conflict in Libya

One fierce gun battle broke out Sunday evening near the hotel where many international reporters were stationed in Tripoli. Many government officials packed their suitcases and left the hotel earlier in the day.

Musa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, said the city is “well-protected, with thousands upon thousands ready to defend the city against any invasion.”

“They wholeheartedly believe that if this city is captured, the blood will run everywhere, so they may as well fight until the end,” he said.

Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, a son of the ruler and a top official in his regime, said earlier on state television that the rebels were losing every battle.

His account contrasts with reports from CNN reporters, witnesses and rebel officials that say government forces have continued to lose ground across the North African nation and faced fresh attacks in the capital.

Rebels moved truckloads of ammunition on roads toward Tripoli on Sunday after seizing an ammunition depot once held by Gadhafi’s forces.

Rebel fighters told CNN they controlled Zawiya and had pushed Gadhafi’s forces more than 15 miles outside the city — and 15 miles west of Tripoli. But Gadhafi’s forces continued firing into Zawiya from a distance.

The battle for Tripoli

The opposition also claimed control of a major oil refinery and cut off a key coastal road outside the city, a major supply route to the capital.

Libyan state television reported Sunday that dozens of armed rebels were arrested south of Zawiya, and their weapons were seized.

Some areas of eastern Tripoli, including the suburb of Tajoura, were out of government control Sunday, according to a Libyan government official who asked not to be named. Rebels set car tires afire along barricades there, the official said.

The official said 65,000 troops loyal to Gadhafi were ready to defend Tripoli, and warned that a massacre would occur if NATO continued to back rebel efforts.

Aref Ali Nayed, an ambassador in the United Arab Emirates for the Libyan rebels’ Transitional National Council, said opposition forces were calling Sunday “Day 1.”

“The reason we declare it ‘Day 1’ is because we feel Gadhafi is already finished. He is already finished, most importantly, in our hearts,” he said. “We no longer fear him.”

Jumma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman from the western mountain region around Zintan, claimed opposition fighters had taken control of the main intelligence operations building in Tripoli.

He also said some Libyan army personnel had defected and joined the rebels in the area of the capital’s airport, which he claimed the rebels took over.

But Musa Ibrahim, the government spokesman, denied that the airport had switched hands, insisting all of Tripoli was safe and under the control of Gadhafi’s forces.

CNN could not immediately confirm whether rebel fighters had taken control of any parts of the city, including the airport. But network staffers on the ground reports that this weekend’s fighting appears to be among the most intense yet in Tripoli.

The fighters will continue to get significant support from NATO, said Lungescu, the alliance spokeswoman. NATO made 22 “key hits” in the Tripoli area Saturday, including on several military facilities, with Lavoie saying the alliance conducted more strikes Sunday to maintain pressure on Gadhafi’s forces.

Ibrahim, the government spokesman, blamed NATO for the conflict and appealed for a cease-fire.

“Every drop of Libyan blood shed by these rebels is the responsibility of the Western world, especially NATO’s countries,” he said. “We hold (U.S. President Barack) Obama, (British Prime Minister David) Cameron and (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy morally responsible for every single unnecessary death that takes place in this country.”

Officials briefed Obama on the situation in Libya Sunday morning and the president will continue to receive updates, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

“Anti-Gadhafi forces have had momentum on their side for some time,” a senior Obama administration official said Sunday. “What we’re seeing is further evidence of their sustained persistence.”

A Maltese ship seeking to evacuate foreign nationals from Libya on Sunday came under heavy fire when a rebel-controlled ship ambushed it near the Libyan coastline in an apparent hijack attempt. As the captain tried to steer toward Tripoli’s port, Gadhafi forces began firing at the rebels, leaving the Maltese ship in the crossfire.

No injuries were reported, but the Maltese ship was forced to turn around. The foreign nationals remained stranded in Libya.

In the rebel hub of Benghazi, meanwhile, CNN iReporter Sammi Addahoumi showed video of large, boisterous crowds in the city’s Freedom Square reacting as reports of the developments played on a large screen.

“The spirts are quite high,” said Addahoumi, a 28-year-old deli manager from South Carolina who said that his father fled Benghazi decades ago. “Everyone is expecting Tripoli to fall.”

In his speech on state television Sunday, though, Gadhafi said the rebels — whom he described as “infidels,” “traitors” and “gangsters” — would fail and vowed not to back down.

“This is the hour of victory,” he said. “This hour is the hour of defiance.”

(edition.cnn.com / 21.08.2011)

 

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