Gaddafi deploys forces to reassert control

Tripoli - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi despatched forces to a western border area on Tuesday in defiance of Western military and economic pressure, stirring fears that the bloodiest Arab revolt may grow more violent.

As the West weighed military options, suspicions grew that the veteran leader, in power for 41 years, did not grasp the strength of the forces now gathering against him.

In Moscow, a Kremlin source suggested Gaddafi should step down, calling him a "living political corpse who has no place in the modern civilised world," Interfax news agency reported.

But Gaddafi appeared oblivious to outside pressure.

"All my people love me. They would die to protect me," he told the US ABC network and the BBC on Monday, dismissing the significance of a rebellion against his 41-year rule that has ended his control over much of eastern Libya.

Barely 12 hours after the United States said it was moving warships and air forces closer to the north African oil exporting country, Libyan forces reasserted their presence at the remote Dehiba southern border crossing on Tuesday, decorating the border post with green Libyan flags.

Reporters on the Tunisian side saw Libyan army vehicles, and soldiers armed with Kalashnikov rifles. The previous day, there was no Libyan security presence at the border crossing. Dehiba is about 60 km from the town of Nalut.

In another part of the west, residents said pro-Gaddafi forces deployed to reassert control of Nalut, about 60 km from the Tunisian border in western Libya, to ensure it did not fall into the hands of anti-Gaddafi protesters.


Around the Libyan capital there were queues outside bread shops on Tuesday morning. Some residents said many bread shops were limiting the number of loaves customers could buy, forcing people to visit several to get needed supplies.

"The situation is nervous," said Salah, a 35-year-old doctor at one bread shop where about 15 people were queuing outside.

"Of course I am worried. My family is afraid. They are waiting at home. We have been hearing gun-fire.

"But the people are together. I hope the situation calms down. I am 35 and this is the first time I saw something like this in Libya. It is very scary."

A resident in the rebel-held town of Zawiyah, 50km west of Tripoli, told Reuters by telephone that there had been a low-key skirmish with pro-Gaddafi forces on the outskirts of the town overnight but that the situation was now calm.

"Our guys opened fire at a checkpoint. They [pro-Gaddafi forces] ran away. We have their anti-aircraft gun and many Kalashnikovs, which they left. Three soldiers died on their side," said the resident, who did not want to be identified.

The United States said on Monday it was moving ships and planes closer to the country and British Prime Minister David Cameron said his government would work to prepare a "no-fly" zone to protect the Libyan people. 

Humanitarian aid the priority

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on world powers to fully implement the UN Security Council resolution on Libya. The text, adopted on Saturday, includes a freeze on Muammar Gaddafi's assets, travel ban and referring his regime's brutal crackdown to the International Criminal Court.

Injecting a note of caution into Western military thinking, France said humanitarian aid must be the priority in Libya rather than military action to oust Gaddafi.

The French government has sent two airplanes with medical equipment and staff to the Libyan city of Benghazi, now in the hands of anti-Gaddafi rebels, and more planes are to follow, government spokesperson Francois Baroin said.

Despite his continued hold on Tripoli, his last remaining stronghold and home to more than 1.5 million people, Gaddafi's power to influence events in his vast desert country has shrunk dramatically in the past two weeks.

Numerous tribal leaders, officials, military officers and army units have defected to the rebels, taking with them swathes of the country of six million including the energy-producing east. Sanctions will squeeze his access to funds.

Some analysts doubted that Gaddafi would launch a wide scale military offensive to regain captured territory given the outside pressure. They interpreted his threats as "political manoeuvring".

"Gaddafi is finished if he does it [military attack] and finished if he doesn't. In both cases he is very vulnerable," said UK-based Libyan activist and editor Ashour Shamis.

"He is losing out sections of Libya very very fast. He has no influence except in Tripoli and even there very small areas are under his control."

Rebels should win

In another potential blow to Gaddafi, Libya's National Oil Corporation said Libya's oil output had halved because of the departure of oil workers, although installations were undamaged and NOC was still overseeing Libya's oil production and exports.

Regional experts expect rebels eventually to take the capital and kill or capture Gaddafi.

But in his interview at a restaurant on Tripoli's Mediterranean coast, Gaddafi, 68, looked relaxed and laughed at times as he scoffed at the uprising.

He denied using his air force to attack protesters but said planes had bombed military sites and ammunition depots. He also denied there had been demonstrations and said young people were given drugs by al-Qaeda and therefore took to the streets. Libyan forces had orders not to fire back at them, he said.

Some see Gaddafi's many media appearances as an astute attempt to use Western satellite television channels to remind a global audience he remains in charge and thereby undermine any notion that his authority is ebbing.

"There's a battle going on for the narrative," said Shashank Joshi, an analyst at Britain's Royal United Services Institute.

A statement by a group of anti-government clerics called the Free Ulema of Libya urged international satellite television companies to stop providing the bandwidth capacity that allowed Libyan television to broadcast Gaddafi's comments globally.

"Gaddafi, his sons, and associates have been directly ordering killings on Libyan television channels," they said.


US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice called Gaddafi's comments to the ABC and BBC "delusional".

At Ras Jdir on the border with Tunisia, there was growing frustration from the thousands of Egyptian refugees angry that other nationalities were being transported away from the frontier but they were not.

Some tore branches from trees and waved them around like clubs, and there were arguments with local officials.

"When are we going to be taken out of here? We cannot accept this," said one Egyptian at a tent camp about 5km from the border. Told about reports ships were coming to a nearby port to repatriate Egyptians, he pointed at some camels and said: "Give me a camel. I will take a camel. I just want to go home."

Revolutions in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt have helped to ignite resentment of four decades of often bloody political repression under Gaddafi as well as his failure to use Libya's oil wealth to tackle widespread poverty and lack of opportunity.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, wrote that the major losers of the wave of Arab uprisings were "the autocratic rulers who have bled their societies dry, used blood and iron to suppress dissent, and neglected the hopes and aspirations of their citizens."

"The winners are the people of the Middle East who have been politically oppressed for decades. Millions of voiceless Arabs and Muslims have regained their voice."

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