Al Qaeda steps in as Libyan unrest spreads

Thursday, February 24, 2011

TRIPOLI/WASHINGTON - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi Thursday struggled to maintain his iron grip on his country as people took control of large swathes of land and the Al Qaeda’s North African wing said it was backing the uprising that has killed an estimated 1,000 people in 10 days.

Al Qaeda’s North African wing said “it will do whatever we can to help” the uprising in Libya, CNN reported, citing a statement the militant group had posted on jihadist websites.

The statement by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was posted Thursday, said SITE, a terrorist-tracking organisation.

A defiant Gaddafi, who is also called the Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, has vowed to stay on in the face of an uprising that has spread quickly across the country.

The mass protests began Feb 14 and spread like wildfire across the country. An estimated 1,000 people have died in the uprising.

Troops loyal to Gaddafi Thursday attacked anti-government protesters in the city of Al-Zawiya, west of Tripoli, Al Arabiya reported.

A witness told the broadcaster that the city had become a “slaughterhouse” and that it was difficult to say how many people had been killed or injured, DPA reported.

Gaddafi’s troops also attacked the town of Zuara, 120 km west of the capital, Xinhua quoted a TV report as saying.

Seven people were killed and 40 others wounded after “the Gaddafi battalions” staged an attack on Zuara.

Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV confirmed the attack. “What is happening in Zuara like genocide, hundreds of dead and wounded,” an eyewitness told the Arabiya TV via the phone.

“Help… Save Our Souls,” she said.

Though desperate attempts were being made to crush the rebellion, reports indicate that cities like Cyrenaica, Derna, Bayda and Misurata, besides Benghazi, were under the control of the pro-democracy demonstrators.

Sections of the army have switched sides and are now supporting the protesters.

Army officers stationed in Misurata, in a statement on the internet, pledged their “total support” for the protesters.

Major-General Suleiman Mahmoud, the commander of the armed forces in Tobruk, told Al Jazeera that his troops had switched loyalties.

“We are on the side of the people,” General Mahmoud was quoted as saying.

“I was with him (Gaddafi) in the past but the situation has changed - he’s a tyrant.”

Thousands of people in Tobruk celebrated their taking of the city Wednesday. They honked car horns and fired in the air to express their joy.

Hossi, an anti-government protester, said: “In 42 years, he turned Libya upside-down.”

“Here the leader is a devil. There is no one in the world like him.”

With the situation deteriorating in Libya, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini warned that it may spark an exodus of up to 350,000 immigrants toward European shores.

“We ask that Europe do its duty,” he said during a Wednesday address to parliament in Rome.

“We want Europe to do more managing the flow of migrants because countries cannot be left alone,” AKI quoted him as saying.

Italy in May 2009 agreed to begin controversial joint patrols with Libya, turning back thousands of illegal immigrants aboard boats in the Mediterranean.

Gaddafi hinted that he may unilaterally scrap cooperation, warning that he would allow thousands of migrants to pass through his country on the way to Europe if the EU sided with opponents of his embattled rule.

Frattini dismissed Libya’s official number of 300 dead during a week of protests, putting the death toll at 1,000 - the same figure used by reports citing eye-witnesses in the north African country.

“We don’t have exact numbers but the figure of 1,000 is likely,” he said.

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