Mercenaries gather in Tripoli for final battle

Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi were yesterday said to be launching fierce counter-attacks as the Libyan uprising edged closer to the capital and the dictator chose to blame Osama bin Laden and teenagers on hallucinogenic drugs for the rebellion.

Amid ominous descriptions of groups of pro-Gaddafi militiamen gathering on the roads around Tripoli, there were reports that the minaret of a mosque in Zawiya – 30 miles west of Tripoli, where protesters had claimed victory – was being pounded by heavy weapons. Troops were said to be filling the streets of Sabratha, 50 miles to the west of the capital. A Libyan newspaper reported that in Zawiya 10 people had been killed, and a witness told the BBC that pro-Gaddafi forces had used machine-guns on unarmed residents in a main square of the city.

A doctor in Sabratha told The New York Times by telephone that after several days of a government crackdown, gunshots had sounded as troops occupied the town. Sabratha was locked down, with no shops open and the local headquarters of the police and the regime's revolutionary committees in ruins. "We are not afraid," the doctor said. "We are watching."

The forces loyal to the 42-year-old regime also attacked anti-government militias now controlling Misurata, 125 miles east of Tripoli and the last major gateway to the capital on the coastal road from that direction, according to the Associated Press, which said several people were killed in fighting near the city's airport. The town of Zuwarah, about 75 miles west of Tripoli, was also said to be in the hands of opposition militias.

With journalists largely confined to the east of the country – amid warnings from the country's deputy foreign minister that they would be considered al-Qa'ida collaborators if they travelled without authorisation – most reports were difficult to confirm. The efforts to strike back against dissidents who have consolidated control of eastern Libya, including the country's second city, Benghazi, came as Colonel Gaddafi made his second broadcast in as many days, this time in a rambling telephone interview with state television. He was not shown.

Some Libyans interpreted his tone as a result of him realising that his threats on Wednesday had failed to stem the uprising. He purported to offer condolences to the families of those who had died – as many as 2,000, according to France's leading human rights official – before appealing for calm and insisting that the person responsible was the al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden, a "criminal... an enemy who is manipulating the people".

In an indication of the strength of the uprising in Zawiya, which he admitted at one point was "slipping away from us", he addressed many of his remarks to its citizens, appealing to them to "stop your children, take them away from Bin Laden, the pills will kill them". On the young anti-government protesters in general, he said: "Their ages are 17, they give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their coffee, their Nescafe."

In an even more bizarre passage the Libyan leader claimed that only he had "moral authority" over the country and added: "I am like the Queen of England. I have jurisdictions."

But Colonel Gaddafi also showed every sign of marshalling thousands of mercenaries, many from sub-Saharan Africa, and irregular forces to defend his redoubt in Tripoli, which also appeared to remain in a state of lockdown. Witnesses said that thousands of these forces were massing on roads to the capital.

One suggested that the scenes were reminiscent of Somalia with gangs of armed men in makeshift uniforms brandishing machine-guns, and unlike police, military units and army officers who have defected to join the protesters, were apparently willing to carry out the dictator's threat on Wednesday to defend the regime to "the last drop of blood".

Dozens of checkpoints operated by the pro-regime militias reportedly lined the road to Tripoli from the west, with the paramilitaries manning them demanding not only proof of identity but also convincing displays of loyalty to a leader facing a gradually mounting wave of international condemnation. "You are trying to convince them you are a loyalist," one resident told the paper. "The second they realise that you are not, you are done for."

In Benghazi, where the rebellion started and where "people's committees" are starting to run the city, a Reuters correspondent was shown about 12 people being held in a courthouse as "mercenaries". Libya's long-serving Interior Minister, General Abdel Fatah Younes al-Abidi, told CNN on Wednesday that he had resigned after the people of Benghazi were mown down with machine-guns. The former justice minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, who has also defected, said that Colonel Gaddafi would never go willingly.

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