* Hundreds dead in eastern city of Benghazi
* "Thunderbolt" army unit said to have defected
* Tribal leaders threaten to cut oil exports
TRIPOLI, Feb 21 Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi
will fight a popular revolt to "the last man standing," one of
his sons said on Monday as people in the capital joined protests
for the first time after days of violent unrest in the eastern
city of Benghazi.
Anti-government protesters rallied in Tripoli's streets,
tribal leaders spoke out against Gaddafi, and army units
defected to the opposition as oil exporter Libya endured one of
the bloodiest revolts to convulse the Arab world.
Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi appeared on national
television in an attempt to both threaten and calm people,
saying the army would enforce security at any price.
"Our spirits are high and the leader Muammar Gaddafi is
leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are behind him as is the
Libyan army," he said.
"We will keep fighting until the last man standing, even to
the last woman standing...We will not leave Libya to the
Italians or the Turks." [ID:nLDE71J0QT]
Wagging a finger at the camera, he blamed Libyan exiles for
fomenting the violence. But he also promised dialogue on reforms
and wage rises.
The cajoling may not be enough to douse the anger unleashed
after four decades of rule by Gaddafi -- mirroring events in
Egypt where a popular revolt overthrew the seemingly impregnable
President Hosni Mubarak 10 days ago.
In the coastal city of Benghazi protesters appeared to be
largely in control after forcing troops and police to retreat to
a compound. Government buildings were set ablaze and ransacked.
In the first sign of serious unrest in the capital,
thousands of protesters clashed with Gaddafi supporters. Gunfire
rang out in the night and police used tear gas to disperse
demonstrators, some of whom threw stones at Gaddafi billboards.
Human Rights Watch said at least 223 people have been
killed in five days of violence. Most were in Benghazi, cradle
of the uprising and a region where Gaddafi's grip has always
been weaker than elsewhere in the oil-rich desert nation.
Habib al-Obaidi, a surgeon at the Al-Jalae hospital, said
the bodies of 50 people, mostly shot dead, were brought there on
Sunday afternoon. Two hundred wounded had arrived, he said.
"One of the victims was obliterated after being hit by an
RPG (rocket propelled grenade) to the abdomen," he said.
Members of an army unit known as the "Thunderbolt" squad had
brought wounded comrades to the hospital, he said. The soldiers
said they had defected to the cause of the protesters and had
fought and defeated Gaddafi's elite guards.
"They are now saying that they have overpowered the
Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people's revolt,"
another man at the hospital, lawyer Mohamed al-Mana, told
Reuters by telephone.
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BENGHAZI THE CRADLE
If Gaddafi had hoped to dismiss Benghazi as a provincial
problem, he faced an alarming development on Sunday night as
crowds took to the streets of Tripoli.
One resident told Reuters he could hear gunshots in the
streets and crowds of people.
"We're inside the house and the lights are out. That's what
I hear, gunshots and people. I can't go outside," he said.
An expatriate worker said anti-government demonstrators were
gathering in residential complexes.
"The police are dispersing them. I can also see burning
cars," he said.
Support for Gaddafi, the son of a herdsman who seized power
in 1969, among Libya's desert tribes was also waning.
The leader of the eastern Al-Zuwayya tribe threatened to cut
oil exports unless authorities halted what he called the
"oppression of protesters".
Speaking to Al Jazeera television, Shaikh Faraj al Zuway
said: "We will stop oil exports to Western countries within 24
hours" if the violence did not stop.
Akram Al-Warfalli, a leading figure in the Al Warfalla
tribe, told Al Jazeera: "We tell the brother (Gaddafi), well
he's no longer a brother, we tell him to leave the country."
The Libyan uprising is one of series of revolts that have
raced like wildfire across the Arab world since December,
toppling the long-time rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and
threatening entrenched dynasties from Bahrain to Yemen.
The West has watched with alarm as long-time allies and old
foes have come under threat, appealing for reform and urging
REVILED AND REVERED
Gaddafi has been one of the most recognizable figures on the
world stage in recent history, reviled by the West for many
years as a supporter of militants and revolutionary movements
while at the same time cutting a showmanlike figure with his
flowing robes, lofty pronouncements and bevy of glamorous female
assistants attending him in his Bedouin tent.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once called him "the Mad
Dog of the Middle East" and in 1986 unleashed air raids against
Tripoli in response to the bombing of a Berlin disco frequented
by U.S. servicemen, an attack Washington blamed on Libya.
The 1988 destruction of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie,
Scotland, by Libyan agents in which 270 people were killed
brought him fresh notoriety and led to U.N. sanctions.
But recent years have seen a rapprochment with the West as
countries such as Britain and Italy sought a slice of its oil
wealth and other lucrative commercial deals.
Though portrayed overseas as a ruthless despot, Gaddafi has
enjoyed some popular support at home. After toppling King Idriss
in 1969, he forged a middle road between communism and
capitalism and oversaw rapid development of the poor country.
While using ruthless tactics against dissidents, he also
spent billions of oil dollars to improve living standards.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara and Christian Lowe; Writing by Angus
MacSwan; Editing by Matthew Jones)