Rebels lay siege to Gaddafi stronghold

Desperate dictator tells faithful: 'We can crush any enemy'

The beleaguered Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi defiantly appealed to his hardcore supporters to "defend the nation" against an uprising which was last night closing in on Tripoli after thousands of protesters braved gunfire to try to march through the capital.

Standing on the ramparts of a fort overlooking the city's Green Square, Colonel Gaddafi pumped his fist and told 1,000 pro-regime demonstrators: "We can crush any enemy. We can crush it with the people's will. The people are armed and when necessary, we will open arsenals to arm all the Libyan people and all Libyan tribes."

Urging the crowd to "retaliate against them, retaliate against them," the 68-year-old President was shown on state television calling on them to "prepare to defend the nation and defend the oil".

In signs that Tripoli was coming under pressure from the protests that had spread from the east of the country, anti-regime protesters were emboldened to attempt to march to the city's central Green Square, amid unconfirmed reports that a vital airbase on the outskirts of the capital had fallen into opposition hands. Armed militia backing the embattled Libyan President fired on the marchers from roofs as they emerged from Friday prayers chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans, killing at least four people in several parts of the city, according to some witnesses. In a video given to The Independent, gunmen are seen apparently shooting at protesters.

Some residents claimed there were now neighbourhoods of the capital under opposition control. Others, including the area where the dictator is thought to have a fortified bunker, remained under regime control. Witnesses claimed that armed Gaddafi supporters were also driving at speed through Tripoli's streets.

"The government is panicking and retreating more and more into the centre of Tripoli. There is fear on both sides," one man who fled the city told The Independent. "The government militias are fearful and so are the demonstrators. They will just continue to shoot all the demonstrators and a lot more people will die."

Last night, the President's son, Saif Gaddafi, seemed to take a more conciliatory tone, suggesting the army may pull back. He told foreign journalists in Tripoli: "We are dealing with terrorists. The army decided not to attack the terrorists, and to give a chance to negotiation. Hopefully we will do it peacefully and will do so by tomorrow."

Earlier, the Mitiga military airbase in the north-east of Tripoli, used earlier for launching helicopter gunship attacks on civilian protesters, was rumoured to have passed to the control of anti-government forces. Witnesses later reported heavy police and troop deployments on the road between Mitiga and the capital's centre.

None of the events in Tripoli could be independently verified. But there were increasing signs that the opposition was in control of towns in north-western Libya, near Tripoli, after the failure of heavy attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces on Thursday to dislodge them. The attacks reportedly killed around 30 people. One Libyan who had returned to the capital from Zawiya said the town was "fully controlled by the opposition. There are no troops there".

In the opposition-controlled east of the country, there was jubilation with anti-regime protesters planning for life after Gaddafi following the defection forces.

The mounting series of defections of senior Libyan officials also continued yesterday. The country's delegation to the UN in Geneva announced, to applause, during an open session of the UN Human Rights Council, that it was siding with the opposition. The defection followed those already made by the justice and interior ministers in Libya itself, along with one of Colonel Gaddafi's cousins and closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, who has sought asylum in Egypt.

Last night, the US closed its embassy in Tripoli and announced that it was imposing sanctions on Libya in coordination with its European allies. The White House had yet to specify what the measures would be, but they could include a "no-fly" zone, the freezing of assets and a travel ban on members of Colonel Gaddafi's government.

Brutality caught on film

*A frightening video smuggled out of Tripoli and handed to The Independent (above) appears to show gunmen firing on demonstrators as they emerge from afternoon prayers in the Ben Ashour district of the Libyan capital. Gunfire is heard as people start running for their lives. But the cameraman also points out that some of the younger men appear to be goading the sniper to show himself to the crowd.

What next for Libya?

*Peaceful resolution

Colonel Gaddafi made desperate attempts to claw back support yesterday with promises of pay rises and cash hand-outs, but general consensus says he has pushed Libyans too far for this option to work.

*Military coup

The Libyan army could overthrow Colonel Gaddafi and his sons, if it was united. Most top-level units remain operational, but defections have caused key splits, which render a coup unlikely.

*Tribal war

Long-standing enmities, common between armed tribes, pose the gravest risk for internal conflicts. However, groups in areas of eastern Libya, which has declared itself "free" of Colonel Gaddafi's rule, have already proven that co-operation is possible.

*Foreign intervention

Intervention is a contentious issue. However, if the international community were to issue arrest warrants for high-profile figures, there is a possibility subordinates would defect in fear.

*Chemical weapons attacks

Libya's former justice minister has warned that Colonel Gaddafi has biological and chemical weapons, and would not hesitate to use them against protesters.