Libya’s interior minister said Wednesday he has quit the government and is supporting the protesters, who he predicted will achieve victory in “days or hours.”
Ex-Interior Minister Abdul Fattah Younis al Abidi told CNN that he resigned Monday after hearing that some 300 unarmed civilians had been killed in Benghazi during the prior two to three days. He accused Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi of planning to attack civilians on a wide scale.
“Gadhafi told me he was planning on using airplanes against the people in Benghazi, and I told him that he will have thousands of people killed if he does that,” Abidi said in an Arabic-language telephone interview conducted Wednesday.
Abidi said he now supports the people and the revolution.
He called Gadhafi “a stubborn man” who will not give up. “He will either commit suicide or he will get killed,” said Abidi, who said he has known him since 1964.
Abidi predicted the revolution will succeed “in a matter of days or hours,” and he called on Libyan security forces “to join the people in the intifada.” Already, he said, “many members” of the security forces had defected, including those in the capital, Tripoli.
He said the entire eastern part of the country is no longer under Gadhafi’s control and that security forces there have orders to never open fire on the people unless forced to do so in self-defense.
The Libyan ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, also called for Gadhafi to resign, joining a chorus of Libyan officials, including the deputy ambassador to the United Nations, who say they now work for the Libyan people, not for Gadhafi.
Among them was the Libyan ambassador to Bangladesh, A.H. Elimam, who resigned to side with pro-democracy protesters, said BSS, the official news agency of Bangladesh, citing a Foreign Ministry official Tuesday.
Their announcements came eight days into protests that have cost Gadhafi control of eastern Libya and the support of other prominent Libyan officials worldwide and hours after Gadhafi delivered a defiant, rambling speech Tuesday, refusing calls to step down.
“This is my country, the country of my grandfathers,” Gadhafi said in remarks carried live on Libyan state television. He vowed to die “a martyr” in his country.
Blaming the unrest on “rats” who are “agents” of foreign intelligence services, Gadhafi said people found to be cooperating with outside forces fomenting discord and those who carry weapons against the country will be executed.
The 68-year-old leader, who has been in power for nearly 42 years, spoke from a compound that U.S. warplanes bombed in 1986, the Jamahiriya News Agency of Libya reported. The United States attacked the compound after implicating Libya in a discotheque bombing in West Berlin that resulted in the deaths of two U.S. service members.
Libyan state TV described the crowds on the streets who were watching Gadhafi’s speech as his supporters; an opposition leader said they had been dragged onto the streets.
Some students at Tripoli’s Academy of Graduate Studies were offered free master’s degrees if they joined Gadhafi supporters in Green Square, a source said. Some people in Tripoli were offered money to put pictures of Gadhafi on their cars and go to Green Square, the source said.
A government spokesman, speaking on television, said Libyans were returning to their usual routine. “A sense of normalcy is returning,” he said. “Some provisions are becoming shorter, but things will return to normalcy within a short period — maybe a few days.”
He said Libyan authorities have asked those tribe members who have attacked barracks and police stations to return the weapons they had taken “because security and safety will return to normal.”
Referring to reports that the military had attacked civilians, he said, “We have reports and evidence they are not using arms unless against those who attacked the barracks.”
The spokesman said U.S. and Israeli intelligence operatives were behind the unrest. “We will get rid of them, in collaboration with our people in the eastern province,” he said.
Despite such claims and even as he called on Libyans who “love and support him” to take to the streets and demonstrate for him, Gadhafi’s grip on power appeared to be weakening.
In eastern Libya, groups of armed people wearing civilian clothing were guarding the streets as opposition leaders seemed to be in firm control, CNN’s Ben Wedeman reported. Wedeman was the first Western television correspondent to enter and report from Libya during the crisis.
As Wedeman and his crew were entering the country, a young man at the border in civilian clothing and toting an AK-47 asked them for their passports. “For what?” responded Wedeman’s driver. “There is no government. What is the point?” They then drove in.
On the Libyan side, there were “no officials, no passport control, no customs,” Wedeman reported.
After meeting Tuesday in an emergency summit, the Arab League issued a statement suspending Libya’s participation in the body’s meetings and all the group’s agencies. The statement called for the immediate cessation of violence and condemned what it called crimes against protesters and peaceful strikers in Libya.
It also asked Libyan authorities to lift the ban imposed on the media, to open communications and telephone networks and to ensure the delivery of emergency medical aid to the wounded.
The U.N. Security Council met Tuesday in private — the group’s first meeting since the wave of protests began rippling through Arab countries several weeks ago — and then issued a statement condemning the violence in Libya.
It called on authorities “to act with restraint, to respect human rights and international humanitarian law and to allow immediate access to international human rights monitors and humanitarian agencies.”
Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said the statement “was not strong enough, but I think it is a good message to the regime in Libya about stopping the bloodshed.”
Dabbashi said Monday that the death toll could be as high as 800.
Human Rights Watch said Monday that at least 233 people have been killed during the unrest. CNN has been in contact with medics and witnesses in Libya, whose accounts appear to corroborate the Human Rights Watch report.
The rights group said Tuesday that witnesses in Tripoli “have described Libyan forces firing ‘randomly’ at protesters” this week and that sources from two hospitals in Tripoli reported at least 62 bodies being taken to their morgues since February 20.
Witnesses have told CNN that helicopter gunships fired into crowds of protesters.
Libya’s government denied it was turning its air force against civilians. Gadhafi’s second-oldest son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, told the state news agency Jamahiriya the warplanes were targeting weapons depots in remote areas.
But one witness, who agreed to be identified only as Adam, said helicopters landed troops “armed to the teeth” in Tripoli’s Green Square on Monday.
“They have been using aerial tactics, along with men on the ground, to disperse and shoot indiscriminately into crowds,” he said. The force included both government troops and mercenaries working for Gadhafi, he said. Residents responded by barricading themselves in their homes and setting up makeshift checkpoints to keep cars full of gunmen out of their neighborhoods.
On Tuesday evening, some anti-government protesters began trying to gather in Tripoli and were fired on by people on foot wearing plainclothes, a witness said. The sounds of “nonstop bullets” could be heard throughout the capital, which the source described as “electronic firing.” At least some of the firing seemed to be coming from Green Square, the source said.
Red cars drove through the streets of Tripoli and fired indiscriminately at people, a source in the capital said.
Residents of Tripoli reported Tuesday a food shortage, gunfire and intimidation by security forces.
Security forces cordoned off the Fashloom suburb of the capital and were shooting people on the streets, including those who were trying to retrieve bodies, said Mohamed Abdallah, spokesman for the National Front for the Salvation of Libya opposition group. Abdallah attributed the information to four witnesses on the ground.
An opposition figure said some people were told the bodies of their loved ones would not be released unless they signed a form saying the person had died in surgery.
CNN could not immediately confirm reports for most areas. The Libyan government maintains tight control on communications and has not responded to repeated requests for access to the country. But CNN has interviewed numerous witnesses by phone.
In eastern Libya, where Wedeman was reporting, residents said hundreds of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa had been killed or captured while fighting for Gadhafi, but much of the army appeared to have switched over to anti-government forces.
In Tobruk, demonstrators chanted the same slogans that were heard in recent days in Tunis, Tunisia, and Cairo, Egypt: “The people want to topple the regime!” Here, the old Libyan flag now flies over the main square. The police station, a hated symbol of Gadhafi’s rule, has been ransacked. Other buildings were sacked, but banks and some other installations appeared untouched.
People in Tobruk were threatening to cut off the export of oil from eastern Libya “unless this massacre is stopped immediately,” local leader Abdallah Sharif told CNN.
But a U.S official with access to U.S. intelligence told CNN “little to no disruption of Libyan oil production” has been seen as a result of the unrest.
And Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman, who was attending the International Energy Forum in Saudi Arabia, said U.S. officials had seen no evidence of an oil shortage. “We believe there is a lot of product in the market,” he said.
Still, the senior source close to the Libyan government said ammunition depots had been attacked and ammunition and guns were “everywhere.” The source said the country was fighting “Islamic extremists.”
The unrest in Libya has been fueled by protesters demanding freedom and decrying high unemployment.
Even as Gadhafi tried to hold on to power, he attracted the ire of increasing numbers of Libyans worldwide.
About 250 protesters stormed into the Libyan Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Tuesday, chanting and calling for Gadhafi to step down, a counselor at the embassy said. Osama Ahmed said most of the protesters were Libyan students studying in Malaysia. The protests were peaceful, he said.
A top Libyan diplomat stationed in China said Tuesday he had resigned in protest of his government’s crackdown on protesters and called on Gadhafi to step down and leave the country.
Hussein Sadiq al Musrati, who was the second secretary in the Libyan mission to Beijing before stepping down four days ago, joined about 20 students and protesters in front of the Libyan Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday. Demonstrators held signs that read, “The game is over. Get out … you’re finished.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Libyan “military firing on its own people, killing its own people is absolutely unacceptable.” The situation “needs to be resolved peacefully,” he said.