Civil War in Libya: Jets bomb civilians. Pilots, high officials flee
Muammar Qaddafi's 42-year rule of Libya appeared to have begun disintegrating Monday, Feb. 21, as civil war swept the country with no signs of him quitting. Instead, he ordered the army to redouble its brutal assaults on the opposition. The Air Force began bombing crowds at random while army tanks and armored vehicles blasted them with live ammunition – not just in the insurgent eastern provinces of Cyrenaica, but the capital of Tripoli and its environs too. There, helicopter gunships aimed heavy machine fire into the main market, the Souk al Jumma, while the first tribal militias loyal to Qaddafi to arrive in the capital from the Sahara fought alongside the army. Casualties soared to an estimated 600, with 250 in Tripoli alone as Qaddafi rallied for a bloody civil war that could linger for years.
High officials of his regime and businessmen began fleeing Tripoli aboard Libyan Air Force fighter jets and helicopters which landed Monday at Malta's MIA international airport. Government officials in Valetta said the pilots had defected rather than bomb demonstrators, while all the Libyan arrivals asked for political asylum and more flights were on the way.
The United States and European Union have concentrated airplanes and ferries on the island ready to evacuate the thousands of their citizens employed in Libya, most in the oil and gas fields, starting Monday night, while the price of crude oil shot up 5 percent.
The 48 hours during which Qaddafi dropped out of sight from Saturday were spent, debkafile's sources report, in mustering embers of loyal Libyan tribes to fight along the remnants of the army for his reinstatement.
There are no signs he has any intention of following in the footsteps of the Tunisians and Egyptian presidents and step down.
debkafile reported Feb. 21 on the outbreak of civil war:
Around two million Cyrenaican protesters, half of Libya's population who control half of the country and part of its oil resources, embarked Sunday, Feb. 20, on a full-scale revolt against Muammar Qaddafi and his affluent ruling Tripolitanian-dominated regime. Unlike the rights protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, in Libya, one half of the country is rising up against the other half, as well as fighting to overthrow a dictatorial ruler of 42 years.
Since last week, heavy battles have been fought in Benghazi, Al Bayda, Al Marj, Tobruk and at least two other two cities. In some places, debkafile's military sources report protesters stormed army bases and seized large quantities of missiles, mortars, heavy machine guns and armored vehicles – and used them. The important Fadil Ben Omar Brigade command base in Benghazi was burnt to the ground.
Our sources cite witnesses who spied Berber tribesmen among the insurgents, which bodes ill for Algerian and Morocco and their large Berber populations.
The reports of massacres and imported mercenaries, especially in Benghazi come mainly from opposition sources in West Europe and cannot be independently confirmed at this time. Neither could reports from the same sources Sunday night that Qaddafi's rule had collapsed and the revolt had spread.
At the same time, there is no doubt that Qaddafi will not scruple to use brutal measures in desperation to save his regime, if he has not already. Hospital sources describe hundreds of dead and injured.
He has meanwhile put Ahmed Gaddaf Al-Dam, his cousin and security chief, in charge of the army's effort to suppress the uprising in Benghazi. Most of the city appears to have fallen to the protesters, with the exception of its airport through which the ruler is pumping heavy reinforcements and sending them straight into battle.
So far, the Libyan Air Force and Navy have not been deployed. Helicopters sent in action to shoot into crowds are confirmed in only one place, Al Bayda.
Since Saturday afternoon, Qaddafi has not been seen or heard in public. According to some rumors, he has left Tripoli and made for the Saharan oasis town of Sebha, his tribal birthplace. So far, he has kept up the flow of military reinforcements to the six rebel cities because the towns of Tripolitania have been relatively quiet. But if Tripoli and its environs rise up too, he will be short of military strength to deal with trouble spots in both parts of the country.
Some Libyan would-be go-betweens proposed a ceasefire between Qaddafi and the protesters whereby the government would resign and the popular former prime minister Abdul Salam Jaloud be appointed caretaker prime minister until the crisis is resolved. But Jaloud declined the offer.
It is too early to determine in advance how the showdown between Qaddafi's army and the protesters-insurgents of Cyrenaica turns out. Before it is over, Libya's eastern provinces may be called on to sacrifice thousands more dead and wounded. If the Cyrenaicans do manage to hold on, they will be in a position to carve Libya in two and break away from Tripolitania and the Qaddafi regime.