Moammar Gadaffi blamed al-Qaeda on Thursday for an insurrection that has wrenched control of much of eastern Libya as he addressed his divided nation for the second time this week to galvanise support for his crumbling regime.
Speaking on state television, the embattled Gadaffi insisted the uprising against his 41-year rule was not a people’s revolt as in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, but fuelled by Osama bin Laden’s network.
In marked contrast to a 75-minute address from a podium outside his Tripoli home on Tuesday, this time Gadaffi spoke by telephone from an undisclosed location in an intervention that lasted barely 20 minutes.
His decision to speak by telephone rather than make an on-screen appearance has raised questions about his whereabouts, and indicates that his power base may be shrinking.
Amid continued fighting, swathes of the east of the country have fallen to opposition control and others into lawlessness, residents and reporters said.
World governments scrambled to evacuate stranded nationals from the oil-rich country as world crude prices soared.
‘They feel trigger happy’
The 68-year-old leader accused residents of Az-Zawiyah, a town 50km west of the capital hit by fierce fighting between his forces and rebels, of siding with the al-Qaeda leader.
“You in Zawiyah turn to Bin Laden,” he said. “They give you drugs.”
“It is obvious now that this issue is run by al-Qaeda,” he said, addressing the towns elders. “Those armed youngsters, our children, are incited by people who are wanted by America and the Western world.
Az-Zawiyah is a middle-class satellite town situated on the Mediterranean that is home to a number of pro-Gadaffi military officers and the site of the country’s largest oil refinery.
“Those inciting are very few in numbers and we have to capture them. Others have to stay at home. They have guns, they feel trigger happy and they shoot especially when they are stoned with drugs.”
The “situation is different from Egypt or Tunisia … Here the authority is in your hands, the people’s hands. You can change authority any way your wish. It’s your call. You are the elderly, the head of the tribes, the professors”.
“They have been brainwashing the kids in this area and tell them to misbehave. These are the ones who are under Bin Laden’s influence and authority, under the influence of drugs.”
Meanwhile, a Libyan newspaper said 10 people were killed and dozens more wounded when pro-government forces attacked the town on Thursday.
Quoting its correspondent in Az-Zawiyah, Benghazi-based Quryna added that “the wounded cannot reach the hospitals because of shots being fired in all directions”.
Earlier, state news agency Jana said three “terrorists” attacked a security forces post there and slit the throats of three police officers.
Al-Jazeera television, reporting heavy fighting, also quoted witnesses as saying an army unit led by Gadaffi ally Naji Shifsha blasted the minaret of a mosque being occupied by protesters in Az-Zawiyah.
Hundreds of people have been killed since the uprising started in the eastern town of Benghazi on February 15, according to human rights groups, while some politicians say the toll could be as high as 1 000.
In the capital, sustained gunfire was heard in the eastern suburbs during the night. On Thursday morning, the streets were virtually deserted.
In Zouara, towards the Tunisian border, fleeing Egyptian workers said the town was in the control of civilian militias after fierce fighting on Wednesday evening.
‘I have principles’
There were unconfirmed reports of continuing fighting in the town of Misrata, about 200 kilometres east of Tripoli. Other reports said pro-Gadaffi forces had attacked Sabratha, which lies between Az-Zawiyah and the capital and Sabha, about 650km to the south.
“Our goal now is Tripoli,” one protester told a town hall meeting addressed by defecting generals. “If Tripoli cannot liberate itself.”
A dozen army and police commanders came forward in the eastern town of Al-Baida to pronounce their support for the popular revolt, each being wildly applauded by the crowd.
“I have left my job and come to Al-Baida in solidarity with my people,” said police General Salah Mathek. “They say I am a traitor but I have principles.”
General Abdul Aziz al-Busta said he had refused orders to fire on civilians as the uprising erupted last week. “They asked us to confront the people and I refused. We cannot use our weapons on our young,” he said.
Residents in Al-Baida spoke of a bloodbath as the regime tried to cling on to power in the eastern Cyrenaica region, long a bastion of dissent.
The town’s main hospital was treating a raft of gunshot casualties, among them two medics, fired on as they attempted to care for the wounded.
On Tuesday, Gadaffi vowed to remain as Libya’s leader, saying he would die as a martyr in the land of his ancestors and fight to the “last drop” of his blood.
The speech, in which he ordered the security forces to crush the popular uprising, sparked universal condemnation from world leaders.
United States President Barack Obama described the crackdown by the regime’s remaining loyalists as “outrageous”.
Obama urged the world to unite to hold Libya accountable for the crackdown while British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he wanted an international investigation into the “atrocities” taking place.