- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

President Obama strongly condemned the violence in Libya but failed Wednesday afternoon to call for the resignation of Moammar Gadhafi hours after the Libyan dictator unleashed a wave of terror in the streets of Tripoli against opponents demanding an end to his brutal regime of more than 40 years.

Mr. Obama’s comments were his first since the uprising erupted more than a week ago in the oil-rich North African nation and a day after Col. Gadhafi called on his supporters to take back the streets of the Libyan capital and claimed he had not ordered any of the earlier crackdowns.

“We strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya,” Mr. Obama said in brief remarks at the White House. “The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya.

“These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence. … It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities.”

The president added that he was dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Geneva for international talks Monday aimed at stopping the violence.

Mr. Obama added that he was studying a “full range of options” against the Libyan regime, including sanctions the U.S. would initiate with its allies. The European Union is also considering sanctions.

“We are doing everything we can to protect American citizens,” Mr. Obama said, referring to U.S. citizens desperately trying to flee Libya.

In Libya, Col. Gadhafi’s supporters unleashed a reign of terror in Tripoli Tuesday night and early Wednesday after the dictator exhorted them to go house to house attacking opponents of his regime.

Libyans interviewed by The Washington Times provided conflicting accounts of atrocities by pro-Gadhafi groups and African mercenaries in the capital. They all agreed that the situation in the capital remained tense and residents were too afraid to leave their homes for fear of being shot by mercenaries.

A female dissident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Al Zawiya Street Hospital in Tripoli had received “several rape victims following Gadhafi’s speech of conducting door-to-door cleansing of the city.”

“Family honor and respect for women is highly regarded in Libya, so going house to house and attacking women is a way of humiliating families and deterring the men from taking to the streets,” she added, noting that Col. Gadhafi vowed to “purify” Libya in his defiant speech broadcast Tuesday.

Safiah Ibrahim, a Libyan-Canadian in Ottawa, said she had received accounts from sources in Libya that more than 200 women had been raped in Tripoli on Tuesday night.

Fred Abrahams, a special adviser at Human Rights Watch, said his organization also received reports of rape but could not independently confirm the accounts.

However, Naser Edeeb, who said he donated blood at Al Zawiya Street Hospital on Wednesday morning, told The Times in an Internet telephone conversation from Tripoli that the number of reported rapes was exaggerated.

Col. Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi went on television Wednesday evening to say that everything was “normal.”

“The ports, schools and airports are all open,” he said according to a Reuters news agency report. “The problem lies in the eastern regions. Life is normal. Brothers, Libyans should come together in this national battle.”

The grim mood in Tripoli contrasted with jubilation in the eastern half of the North African nation, which is largely under the control of pro-democracy groups and rebel soldiers who defected from Col. Gadhafi’s army.

Residents, including children, have been directing traffic and cleaning the streets in these eastern cities, and large crowds celebrated their victory over the Gadhafi regime.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside the courthouse in Benghazi, the second-largest city in Libya, and phone interviews with residents were punctuated by the sound of fireworks and cheering.

“In Benghazi, everyone is celebrating tonight,” said Abdullah Al-Huni, raising his voice to make himself heard over the crackle of fireworks.

People were distributing candy and fruit juice and enthusiastically hugging strangers.

On Tuesday, residents in Benghazi made a gruesome discovery when they stumbled upon a large underground prison and the remains of soldiers who had been bound and burned, ostensibly for refusing to fire at unarmed civilians.

“The prisoners were discovered after bulldozers were brought in to break through the concrete [floor],” Nabil ElHuni said.

Mr. Al-Huni and Fathi Masamri, another Benghazi resident, witnessed the scene at the barracks. Mr. Al-Huni said the charred remains of 150 soldiers had been found. Mr. Masamri saw the remains taken away in clear plastic bags.

Erratic phone connections made it difficult to contact residents in Libya, especially those living in Tripoli. Mr. Abrahams of Human Rights Watch said his group is deeply concerned about the information blackout.

“We know what ugly things can happen in the dark,” Mr. Abrahams said.

Gadhafi said in his speech that everything is fine. If everything is fine, then he should let in journalists and human rights monitors. In the absence of those watching eyes, we are deeply concerned that there can be killings, detentions, torture.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva will convene a special session on the situation in Libya on Friday. Rights groups want Libya to be kicked off the panel.

Meanwhile, checkpoints manned by Libyan forces and African mercenaries have sprung up across Tripoli as the regime tries to keep pro-democracy activists from entering the capital.

The female dissident who asked not to be named said militias sympathetic to the regime had arrested residents suspected of making international phone calls or posting anything online that was critical of the government.

“People are afraid to leave their homes; at the same time they are worried that if someone comes in, they won’t be able to defend themselves,” she said.

Residents from the eastern part of the country piled into cars and were heading to the capital to “help our brothers,” as Benghazi resident Mohamed Mustafa el-Faituri put it.

“The African mercenaries in Tripoli are showing no mercy. They have been killing people, including women and children,” said Mr. el-Faituri, who has been in touch with friends in the capital.

“We are rooting for the people of Tripoli,” he added.

In Misurata, a provincial center 130 miles east of Tripoli, residents said they received text messages with promises of money if they went out onto the streets to support Col. Gadhafi.

In hospitals, masked men noted the names of patients and seized vital supplies of blood, sources said.

“The only conclusion is that there is going to be some kind of retribution,” the female dissident said.

In Fashloum, a Tripoli neighborhood, military tanks reportedly were involved in operations on Tuesday night.

“The big question on everyone’s mind is, ‘What is going to happen next?’” Mr. Masamri said. “We are waiting for the army to come to our side, like they did in Egypt.”

Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

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