- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

Col. Moammar Gadhafi on Thursday blamed Osama bin Laden for the unrest sweeping Libya, even as forces loyal to the dictator waged fierce battles in cities around Tripoli in an attempt to crush the pro-democracy uprising.

In the eastern and southern parts of the country, which are largely under the control of the regime’s opponents, scores of civilians and soldiers piled into vehicles bound for Tripoli and Col. Gadhafi’s tribal stronghold of Sirte for what is expected to be a deadly showdown with the regime.

Meanwhile, the White House said it was examining all options, including imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, and the Swiss government announced that it had frozen assets belonging to Col. Gadhafi and his family.

Convoys of vehicles packed with heavily armed civilians and soldiers who defected from the army were leaving Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, residents and eyewitnesses told The Washington Times in phone interviews.

Rebel soldiers chanted slogans in support of Libyans in the west.

“We are coming to free you, our capital,” they shouted.

By Thursday night, residents in Tripoli were reporting that groups allied against the regime had arrived on the outskirts of the capital.

Meanwhile, Col. Gadhafi’s forces unleashed retribution on in cities in the western part of the country.

Libyans spoke of alarming levels of violence in Al-Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, and in Misurata, 130 miles to the east of the capital. Several sources confirmed that scores of people had been killed and hundreds wounded in both cities.

“Today has been a very bad day in Al-Zawiya,” said Ahmed Bentaher, a doctor based in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Dr. Bentaher said a colleague who works at a hospital in Al-Zawiya told him that security forces and African mercenaries had used machine guns to fire at people in the city. Hospitals were inundated with dead and wounded victims of the carnage.

People in Al-Zawiya were afraid to leave their homes out of fear that they would be shot by snipers and mercenaries. Bodies piled up in the streets and anyone trying to retrieve them risked being shot.

Fighting was also reported in Sabratha and Zuara, 50 miles and 75 miles west of the capital respectively.

Benghazi, the scene of much celebration since it shook off the regime earlier this week, was quiet on Thursday as residents anxiously awaited news from the west.

“Residents are going with the army to Tripoli,” said Abdullah Al-Huni, a Benghazi resident.

He said almost a million people are expected to gather in prayer on Friday in solidarity with the residents of Tripoli.

A resident of Tripoli, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal against his family, said people are busy planning a big protest on Friday.

“We are not scared any more. Tomorrow will be [Col. Gadhafi‘s] last day” in power, he said.

Another Tripoli resident who only gave her first name, Rehna, said the city resembled a ghost town as residents were in a state of “self-imposed lockdown.”

Those brave enough to venture out faced security forces at checkpoints, where they were arrested if they failed to display signs of allegiance to the regime.

In a unusual phone call to state TV, Col. Gadhafi blamed Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for inciting Libyans against him.

“Our children have been manipulated by al Qaeda,” Col. Gadhafi said. “Their ages are 17. They give them pills at night. They put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe.

“Those exploiting the youth have to be arrested,” he added.

Libyans who heard the address were struck by the fact that Col. Gadhafi spoke by phone, a marked departure from the dictator’s usual rambling speeches delivered in front of crowds.

Some doubted that the speaker was in fact Col. Gadhafi.

“We have heard so many of his speeches, we would recognize his voice! This wasn’t him,” said a resident of Benghazi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Al-Huni burst into laughter when he heard Col. Gadhafi blame the unrest on Bin Laden.

“There is nothing like that happening here. He is lying,” he said.

African mercenaries, who were trained by the Gadhafi regime to fight in other parts of the continent, have been called back to Libya. Some residents in areas in and around Tripoli say they have seen the mercenaries amassing for what appears to be a major offensive by the regime.

“The mercenaries are almost an official division of the military in Libya,” Dr. Bentaher said.

Meanwhile, France’s top human rights official said up to 2,000 people have possibly died in the unrest.

“The question is not if Gadhafi will fall, but when and at what human cost,” said Francois Zimeray. “For now the figures we have, more than 1,000 have died, possibly 2,000, according to sources.”

A humanitarian crisis is brewing on Libyas eastern border with Egypt where scores of Egyptian workers have crossed back into their home country. However, people of other nationalities have been stranded in no-man’s land.

Ousama Abushagur, who is coordinating relief work at the Libya-Egypt border, said about 3,000 Nepalese and Vietnamese workers employed with a South Korean construction firm had been stuck at the border without food or water. Workers from Chad, who were until recently employed by a Turkish firm, were also stranded.

“We are going to start seeing more and more people in this situation,” Mr. Abushagur cautioned in a phone interview with The Washington Times.