TRIPOLI Libyan tribes loyal to Muammar Gaddafi called on rebels on Saturday to 'return to the fold' and stand united with their leader against NATO airstrikes they likened to Italy's colonial rule.
The call came in a meeting of leaders representing some 420 tribes to which Gaddafi's government brought the foreign media it has permitted in Tripoli. Those journalists operate under close supervision from government minders.
"The Zawarah tribes call on our brothers in the east and in the Western Mountains to ... return to the fold of other Libyan tribes," said Mohammed al-Mansouri, speaking on behalf of tribes from the Zawarah area in the west of Libya.
"Libya's soil is the graveyard of invaders. Ask the fascist Italians what happened to them when they invaded Libya in 1911."
Weeks of Western air strikes have failed to dislodge Gaddafi. They brought stalemate to a war he looked to have been winning, with government forces held at bay in the east and around the besieged city of Misrata while fighting for control of the western mountains.
Libya's army has withdrawn to the outskirts of Misrata, from where it has shelled the port that was held by rebels and mined its waters to prevent ships from sending them aid and supplies.
Libyan officials say they are arming and training the tribes on the outskirts of Misrata and would leave it to them to reach a solution, either negotiated or violent, to the crisis there.
Outside the tent where the tribal elders were meeting a young man from the Warshanna tribe said he and his kin were ready to go to Misrata to try to end the conflict that has killed hundreds of people in Libya's third largest city.
Nasreddine Abu Amaid said the tribes would try to negotiate an end to the fighting, provided NATO airstrikes stopped, but were ready to fight the rebels if necessary.
"We will go. Our guys are ready. In my town we have 15,000 who are ready to cleanse Misrata," he said, referring to Aziziya, southwest of Tripoli, where the meeting took place.
"We wanted the army to retreat. We will take over. We are really fed up, especially from NATO. If NATO did not enter it would not have happened like this."
Asked if he was worried that such a move would spark a full-blown civil war, Abu Amaid said: "We are ready for that if they don't want to stop."
Virtually all those who spoke at the conference pledged allegiance to Gaddafi, a blown-up photograph of whom was placed at the front of the hall. Tribesmen in white robes rose and burst into pro-government chants in the middle of speeches.
Mahmoud al-Bahloul spoke on behalf of 34 clans numbering around 200,000 people he said constituted a protective belt around the capital. Other speakers represented other groupings.
"We say Libyans are one and Libyan soil will not be divided," Omar Tantoush, a coordinator of the meeting, told the assembled tribesmen.
(Editing by Robert Woodward)