TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A defiant Muammar Gaddafi said on Tuesday he was ready to die “a martyr” in Libya, vowing to crush a growing revolt which has seen eastern regions break free of his 41-year rule and brought deadly unrest to the capital.
Swathed in brown robes, Gaddafi seethed with anger and banged the podium outside one of his residences that was damaged in a 1986 U.S. bombing raid that attempted to kill him. Next to him stood a monument of a fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet.
“I am not going to leave this land. I will die here as a martyr,” Gaddafi said on state television, refusing to bow to calls from his own diplomats, soldiers and protesters who braved a fierce crackdown to clamour in streets for him to go.
Huge popular protests in Libya’s neighbors Egypt and Tunisia have toppled entrenched leaders, but Gaddafi said he would not be forced out by the rebellion sweeping through his vast oil producing nation of just 7 million people, which stretches from the Mediterranean into the Sahara.
“I shall remain here defiant,” said Gaddafi, who has ruled the mainly desert country with a mixture of populism and tight control since taking power in a military coup in 1969.
The White House said the international community must speak with one voice in response to the “appalling violence” in Libya and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States would take “appropriate steps” in time.
But Washington has little leverage over Libya, which was a U.S. adversary for most of Gaddafi’s rule until it agreed in 2003 to abandon a weapons-of-mass-destruction program and moved to settle claims from the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Gaddafi had declared war on his people and told a news conference she would back sanctions on Libya if Gaddafi did not stop the violence.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accused Libya of firing on civilians from warplanes and helicopters. The U.N. Security Council met in closed session to discuss the crisis and the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said “systematic attacks” on civilians may amount to “crimes against humanity.”
But Gaddafi was unrepentant. Anti-government protesters were “rats and mercenaries” who deserved the death penalty, he said in the rambling, 75-minute speech. Gaddafi said he would call upon the people to “cleanse Libya house by house” unless protesters surrendered.
He urged Libyans to take to the streets to show their loyalty. “All of you who love Muammar Gaddafi, go out on the streets, secure the streets, don’t be afraid of them ... Chase them, arrest them, hand them over,” he said.
Libya’s official news agency quoted him as telling Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that “Libya is fine, its people are ... holding on to its security.”
But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there were “many indications of the structure of the state collapsing in Libya.” Britain and other European nations have said they are trying to evacuate nationals from Libya by plane.
Several hundred people held a pro-Gaddafi rally in Tripoli’s central Green Square on Tuesday, a Reuters reporter there said. “Our leader!” and “We follow your path!,” they chanted, waving green Libyan flags and holding aloft portraits of Gaddafi.
“There are several hundred (Gaddafi) supporters making their way into the city center. They are in cars, making lots of noise and carrying his portrait,” said a resident of the Mediterranean coastal city of 2 million, which is key to controlling Libya.
In Sabratah, 50 miles west of the capital, the Libyan army had deployed a “large number” of soldiers after protesters destroyed almost all the security services offices, the online Quryna newspaper said.
Refugees streaming across Libya’s eastern border into Egypt said Gaddafi was using tanks, warplanes and foreign mercenaries to fight the growing rebellion.
The reports of the bloody crackdown have put pressure on President Barack Obama to intervene, with U.S. politicians criticizing his silence and calling for military actions ranging from bombing Libyan airfields to imposing no-fly zones.
Eastern Libya is no longer under Gaddafi’s control, rebel soldiers in the city of Tobruk told a Reuters reporter there.
Tobruk residents said the city had been in the hands of the people for three days. They said smoke rising above the city was from a munitions depot bombed by troops loyal to one of Gaddafi’s sons. There was the occasional explosion.
“All the eastern regions are out of Gaddafi’s control ... The people and the army are hand-in-hand here,” said former army major Hany Saad Marjaa.
Al Jazeera reported Libya’s Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younes al Abidi had defected to join the rebels. It aired video footage showing Abidi at his desk reading a statement urging the Libyan army to join the people and their “legitimate demands.”
On the Libyan side of the border with Egypt, anti-Gaddafi rebels armed with clubs and Kalashnikov assault rifles welcomed visitors. One man held an upside-down picture of Gaddafi defaced with the words “the butcher tyrant, murderer of Libyans,” a Reuters correspondent who crossed into Libya reported.
Hundreds of Egyptians flowed out of Libya on tractors and trucks, telling harrowing tales of state violence and banditry.
The U.N. refugee agency urged Libya’s neighbors to grant refuge to those fleeing the unrest.
Egypt’s new military rulers, who took power following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, said the main crossing with Libya would be kept open round-the-clock to allow the sick and wounded to enter.
In the eastern town of Al Bayda, resident Marai Al Mahry told Reuters by telephone that 26 people including his brother Ahmed had been shot dead overnight by Gaddafi loyalists.
“They shoot you just for walking on the street,” he said, sobbing uncontrollably as he appealed for help.
Protesters were attacked with tanks and warplanes, he said.
“The only thing we can do now is not give up, no surrender, no going back. We will die anyways, whether we like it or not. It is clear that they don’t care whether we live or not. This is genocide,” said Mahry, 42.
Human Rights Watch said 62 people had died in clashes in Tripoli in the past two days, on top of its previous toll of 233 dead. Opposition groups put the figure far much higher.
The revolt in Libya, the third largest oil producer in Africa, has driven oil prices to a 2 1/2 year high above $108 a barrel, and OPEC said it would produce more crude if supplies from member Libya were disrupted.
As the fighting has intensified some supporters have abandoned Gaddafi. Tripoli’s envoy to India, Ali al-Essawi, resigned and told Reuters that African mercenaries had been recruited to help put down protests.
“The fall of Gaddafi is the imperative of the people in streets,” he said. The justice minister also quit and a group of army officers urged soldiers to “join the people.”
A showman-like figure with his flowing robes and a penchant for female bodyguards, Gaddafi has been one of the most recognizable figures on the world stage.
He was shunned for much of his rule by the West, which accused him of links to terrorism and revolutionary movements. U.S. President Ronald Reagan called him a “mad dog” and sent war planes to bomb Libya in 1986.
Gaddafi was particularly reviled after the 1988 Pan Am airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, by Libyan agents in which 270 people were killed.
Reporting by Tarek Amara, Christian Lowe, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Souhail Karam; Brian Love, Daren Butler; Dina Zayed, Sarah Mikhail and Tom Perry in Cairo and a Reuters correspondent in Libya; Henry Foy in New Delhi; Writing by Jon Hemming and Dominic Evans; Editing by Michael Roddy