Protesters defy Gaddafi as international pressure mounts (1st Lead)
Feb 23, 2011, 12:19 GMT
Tripoli - Anti-government protesters defied Libyan strongman Moamer Gaddafi and took to the streets of Benghazi for a ninth day in a row Wednesday as international pressure on the country's ageing leader mounted.
The fresh protests came a day after Gaddafi called on his supporters to fight back and threatened to use force against his critics.
'You men and women who love Gaddafi ... get out of your homes and fill the streets,' he said in a televised speech late Tuesday, his first major public appearance since the unrest broke out.
Accurate reporting on the unrest in Libya has been difficult, with limited phone and internet connections in the country. Few international reporters are able to enter Libya.
Most estimates point to hundreds of protesters killed so far. But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Wednesday that a figure of 1,000 dead was 'plausible.' Frattini also warned that up to 300,000 Libyans may be about to flee to Europe.
Meanwhile, international condemnation of Gaddafi's violent crackdown was mounting, with the United Nations Human Rights Council saying it would convene a special session on the crisis on Friday.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest European leader to threaten sanctions against Libya, saying he would 'propose to our European Union partners the quick adoption of concrete sanctions so that all those who are implicated in the current violence know that they have to assume the consequences of their acts.'
Despite Gaddafi's defiant stance, there were signs that his grip on power was slipping.
On Tuesday, his interior minister, Abdul Fattah Younis, said he was joining the anti-government protesters. Libyan ambassadors in several countries have also abandoned their posts.
And after the defection of two jet fighter pilots to Malta, more military units in northeastern Libya signalled their support for anti-government protesters, Al Arabiya reported on Wednesday.
Former Libyan officials, diplomats, and international groups have said Gaddafi's security forces were losing control of Benghazi and other major cities in the country.
Egyptian workers fleeing Libya reported chaos in the east of the country, where anti-government sentiment is said to be strongest, and the army now almost entirely absent.
The violent crackdowns have prompted Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn to speak of 'genocide.'
In his speech Tuesday, Gaddafi dismissed the uprising as the work of 'a few drugged people' and foreign agitators, and warned that his regime had 'not used force yet' to respond to the provocation.
The ruler of 41 years vowed to fight his opponents to his 'last drop of blood.'
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