Gaddafi blames al-Qa'ida for bloodshed

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The Independent Online

Muammar Gaddafi blamed a revolt against his rule on al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden on Thursday and said that as Libyan leader he only had "moral authority".

Gaddafi, speaking by telephone to Libyan television, offered his condolences for those who were killed in the bloodshed and called for calm amongst people he said were fighting amongst themselves and taking hallucinogenic drugs. Saying bin Laden was "the real criminal", Gaddafi urged Libyans not be swayed by the al Qaeda leader.

"Bin Laden ... this is the enemy who is manipulating people," Gaddafi said, adding: "Do not be swayed by bin Laden."

"I only have moral authority," he said, who has long sought to present himself as a leader of a revolution that is led by the people, rather than a traditional executive head of state.

"No sane person" would join the protests against his rule, Gaddafi said and called on citizens to take weapons from those who were protesting.

Referring to violent clashes taking place in the town of Zawiyah, about 50 km (30 miles) from the capital Tripoli, Gaddafi said, "What is happening in Zawiyah is a farce. ... Sane men don't enter such a farce."

"Leave the country calm," he told Libyans.

Earlier, army units and militiamen loyal to Muammar Gaddafi struck back against protesters who have risen up in cities close to the capital today, attacking a mosque where many had taken refuge and blasting its minaret and opening fire on others protecting a local airport.

The assaults aimed to push back a rebellion that has moved closer to Gaddafi's bastion in the capital, Tripoli. The revolt has already broken away nearly the eastern half of Libya and unravelled parts of Gaddafi's regime.

In the latest blow to the Libyan leader, a cousin who is one of his closest aides, Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam, announced that he has defected to Egypt in protest against the regime's bloody crackdown against the uprising, denouncing what he called "grave violations to human rights and human and international laws."

In the city of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, an army unit attacked a mosque where protesters had been camping inside and in a lot outside for several days, calling for Gaddafi's resignation, a witness said. The soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons and hit the mosque's minaret with anti-aircraft missiles, he said. Some of the young men among the protesters had hunting rifles.

He said there were casualties, but couldn't provide exact figures. He said a day earlier an envoy from Gaddafi had come to the city and warned protesters, "Either leave or you will see a massacre." Zawiya is a key city near an oil port and refineries.

"What is happening is horrible, those who attacked us are not the mercenaries; they are sons of our country," he said, sobbing. After the assault, thousands massed in the city's main Martyrs Square, shouting "leave, leave," in reference to Gaddafi, he said.

"People came to send a clear message: we are not afraid of death or your bullets," he said. "This regime will regret it. History will not forgive them."

The other attack came at a small airport outside Misrata, Libya's third largest city, where rebels claimed control on Wednesday. Militiamen today attacked a line of residents who were protecting the facility, opening fire with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, said a resident who saw the assault

"They left piles of human remains and swamp of blood," he said. "The hospitals are packed with those killed and injured." But he could not provide exact figures.

After the attack ended before noon, another Misrata resident said the local radio, now in opposition hands, urged people to march on the airport in support of the protesters. Both residents said the rebellion continues to control the city, located about 120 miles east of Tripoli.

Gaddafi's crackdown has so far helped him maintain control of Tripoli, a city that holds about a third of Libya's six million population. But the uprising by protesters, backed by army units that joined their ranks, has divided the country and threatened to push it toward civil war.

The leader's cousin, Gaddaf al-Dam, is one of the most high level defections to hit the regime so far, after many ambassadors around the world, the justice minister and the interior minister all sided with the protesters. Gaddaf al-Dam belonged to Gaddafi's inner circle, officially his liaison with Egypt, but he also served as Gaddafi's envoy to other world leaders and frequently appeared by his side.

In a statement issued in Cairo today, Gaddaf al-Dam said he had left Libya for Egypt "in protest and to show disagreement" with the crackdown.

International momentum has been building for action to punish Gaddafi's regime for the bloodshed.

President Barack Obama said the suffering in Libya "is outrageous and it is unacceptable," and he directed his administration to prepare a full range of options, including possible sanctions that could freeze the assets and ban travel to the US by Libyan officials.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the possibility of the European Union cutting off economic ties.

Another proposal gaining some traction was for the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent it using warplanes to hit protesters. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that if reports of such strikes are confirmed, "there's an immediate need for that level of protection."

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.

Muammar Gaddafi's son claimed today that the reported death tolls have been exaggerated, although he didn't provide his own figure. In a press conference aired on state TV, he said the number killed by police and the army had been limited and "talking about hundreds and thousands (killed) is a joke."

He also said a committee had been formed to investigate alleged foreign involvement in the protests.

Earlier today, Libyan TV showed Egyptian passports, CDs and mobile phones purportedly belonging to detainees who had allegedly confessed to plotting "terrorist" operations against the Libyan people. Other footage showed a dozen men lying on the ground, with their faces down, blindfolded and handcuffed. Rifles and guns were laid out next to them.

* (PA) In later parts of Gaddafi's speech, translated by the BBC, he compared his 41 years as ruler of Libya with the Queen's 59-year reign over Britain and the Commonwealth.

Gaddafi said: "There are people who have been in power longer than me, like Queen Elizabeth of Britain."

Viewers did not see Gaddafi during the broadcast but watched a television presenter sitting behind a desk listening to the leader, who claimed he was helpless to prevent the uprising.

"I have got no orders, no say in what the people do, the power they have," said Gaddafi.

"It's not my problem."

He accused protesters of taking hallucinogenic drugs, adding: "When they come back and when they stop using the drugs, they will realise what they are doing, the damage they are causing to the country.

"Those I have spoken to have shown remorse and regretted it."

He also attacked protesters' parents, accusing them of allowing their children to take to the streets high on mind-bending drugs.

He added: "You should talk to them. This is your country - you shouldn't allow your children to behave the way they are behaving now."

Gaddafi finished his tirade by saying: "All I can say, I have told you so. I am waiting for you now.

"Please don't disappoint me, otherwise the Libyan people will get angry and turn against you."

The phone line went dead as Gaddafi apparently hung up.