More Skirmishes in Libya as U.S., Europe Ratchet Up Pressure

Forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi carried out airstrikes and skirmished with rebels in parts of Libya on Monday, as European and U.S. officials took steps to pressure the longtime leader to resign.

In an interview with Western reporters, Gaddafi said he could not step down because he is not a president or king, and he asserted that there have been no demonstrations against him in the capital, Tripoli, ABC News reported Monday. “My people love me,” ABC’s Christiane Amanpour quoted Gaddafi as saying. “They would die for me.” She said Gaddafi denied ever using force against his people, accused al-Qaeda of encouraging youths to seize arms from military installations and said he felt betrayed by the United States. “I’m surprised that we have an alliance with the west to fight al-Qaeda, and now that we are fighting terrorists they have abandoned us,” he said. “Perhaps they want to occupy Libya.” (Washington Post) Gaddafi called President Obama a “good man” who might have been misinformed about Libya. “The statements I have heard from him must have come from someone else,” ABC quoted Gaddafi as saying. “America is not the international police of the world.” (Washington Post) Wearing brown tribal garb and sunglasses, the Libyan leader gave the interview at a restaurant on a seaside road in Tripoli, ABC said. Also participating were reporters for the BBC and London’s Sunday Times.

In Washington, the Treasury Department announced that it has frozen $30 billion in assets belonging to Gaddafi, his relatives and loyalist officials in the largest such action by the United States. Referring to Gaddafi’s assertion that his people love him, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, “He should get out of his tent and see what is really happening in his country.” (Washington Post)

In Zawiya and Misurata – the two opposition-held cities closest to the capital, Tripoli – rebel forces were reported locked in standoffs with Gaddafi loyalists. Anti-government forces in Misurata, 131 miles east of Tripoli, fired at a helicopter that was trying to attack the antenna of the local radio station Monday, residents said in telephone interviews. The helicopter was armed with missiles but flew away in the direction of Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, farther to the west, after opposition supporters opened fire on it, an eyewitness said. It was the third time in as many days that helicopters have attempted to attack the antenna or the radio station, the residents said. On Saturday, a helicopter offloaded six to eight soldiers near the site of the radio station in an apparent bid to seize it. But they were attacked by armed regime opponents, who have secured weapons from one of the town’s military barracks, residents said. They said the attackers managed to escape, leaving their weapons behind. Another helicopter that approached the radio antenna on Sunday was chased away by gunfire, a witness said.

Although Misurata was overrun by protesters last Thursday, Gaddafi loyalists are still holding out at an airbase and a barracks on the edge of the city, and there are daily clashes between the two sides, residents said. “An aircraft was shot down this morning while it was firing on the local radio station. Protesters captured its crew,” a witness told Reuters by telephone. “Fighting to control the military air base started last night and is still going on. Gaddafi’s forces control only a small part of the base.” (Reuters)

In Zawiya, 27 miles west of Tripoli, residents were anticipating a possible attack by pro-regime troops. “Our people are waiting for them to come,” one resident, who would not give his full name, told the Associated Press. “And, God willing, we will defeat them.” (Washington Post)

A helicopter attacked a military weapons depot Monday in Heniya, just outside Ajdabiya, a town about 100 miles south of Benghazi, said Idriss Sharif, an adviser to the management committee in Benghazi. A fighter pilot from the air force base in Benghazi, an opposition stronghold 630 miles east of the capital, said weapons and ammunition have been moved from storage units in case of a strike on the base. Over the past few days, the air force here has been setting up antiaircraft weapons to protect against airstrikes on this town that has become the center of resistance against Gaddafi’s regime.

At 4 p.m. Monday, another airstrike hit just south of the airport, slamming into a weapons depot in Rajma village, an official at the Benina airport outside the city said. It followed an airstrike in the same area about six days ago, the official said. Most of the weapons had already been taken by people in the village, he said. Earlier in the day, fighter jets were circling over the airport but did not strike, the airport said.

In Washington, Pentagon officials said Monday morning that they are repositioning air and naval assets in the Mediterranean to support plans now under discussion for contingencies ranging from humanitarian assistance to Libya to imposition of a “no-fly zone” to prevent Gaddafi loyalists from carrying out airstrikes. Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said no decisions have yet been made to take any specific action, and administration officials have said that any move would be made in coordination with international allies. A no-fly zone could utilize U.S. planes flown from bases in Italy or from aircraft carriers offshore from Libya. Lapan said there are no U.S. aircraft carriers currently in the Mediterranean, although two are now in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf area. “We’re still in that planning and preparing mode should we be called upon to do any of those types of missions, whether humanitarian and otherwise,” Lapan said. (Reuters)

In Tripoli’s Tajura district, which has been the scene of frequent clashes, mourners leaving the funeral of a person shot last week marched down a main street chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans, a witness said. But they quickly dispersed once a group of government loyalists rushed to the scene. “When the protesters reached the Souk Juma (market), they were joined by armed men from the Gaddafi battalion who were dressed as civilians and opened fire on the unarmed youths. Many among the youths were wounded and killed,” the Libyan newspaper said. (Reuters)

Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli that government forces had fired on civilians but said this was was because they were not trained to deal with civilian unrest. He said the government was still in control of Zawiyah, even though reporters who were taken there at the weekend saw a town center under rebel control. “What you saw was only the center,” he said. “We allowed, we let these people with their guns to stand there. Zawiyah has not fallen. The government could have easily killed them and has not done so, because the government has not been bloody.” (Reuters) At a news conference for foreign journalists invited to Tripoli, Mr. Ibrahim denied reports that Colonel Gaddafi’s loyalists had turned their guns on hundreds of civilians. “No massacres, no bombardments, no reckless violence against civilians,” he said, comparing Libya’s situation to that of Iraq before the American-led invasion in 2003. But Mr. Ibrahim insistsed that Libya still sought some kind of gradual political opening as suggested by the colonel’s son, Seif al-Islam el-Gaddafi. “We are not like Egypt or Tunisia,” the spokesman said. “We are a very Bedouin tribal society. People know that and want gradual change.” (New York Times)

In Europe, the European Union voted to impose tough sanctions on Libya while Gaddafi remains in office. And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that Gaddafi “must be held accountable” for the brutal crackdown on protesters that, watchdog groups say, has left hundreds – perhaps thousands – dead. Britain’s Cameron, speaking in the parliament in London, urged Gaddafi to step down and said all measured would be considered to pressure him to go. “We do not in any way rule out the use of military assets,” Cameron said. “I have asked the Military of Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff to work with our allies on plans for a military no-fly zone.” (Reuters)

France said it was sending medical aid. Prime Minister Francçois Fillon said planes loaded with doctors, nurses and supplies were heading to the rebel-controlled eastern city of Benghazi, calling the aircraft “the beginning of a massive operation of humanitarian support for the populations of liberated territories.” (New York Times) Mr. Fillion told broadcasters that the French Government was studying “all solutions to make it so that Colonel Gaddafi understands that he should go, that he should leave power.” (New York Times)

The popular revolt that has already seen Gaddafi’s opponents claim the eastern half of the country spread deeper into the west on Sunday, with rock-wielding residents expanding control over key towns even as loyalists forces appeared poised to counterattack or impose blockades.

With his 41-year rule of the nation at large failing, Gaddafi sought to reinforce his position in Tripoli, his stronghold, by literally doling out cash to citizens and vowing huge raises for public workers, residents said.

Firmly in the hands of the opposition, eastern Libya is moving to form its own interim government centered in the country’s second city, Benghazi, and vowing to send a force against Gaddafi in Tripoli. Top opposition organizers, though, were immediately at odds over who would lead the vast portions of Libya outside the government’s reach.

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