Nation & World

Gadhafi surfaces after a day of rebel advance on Tripoli

CAIRO — Embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi called the rebels trying to bring down his regime “traitors” and accused the Western powers of intervening for oil and destroying the country’s infrastructure in their wake, he said in an audio address that aired on state TV before dawn Sunday.

“Is this democracy? I think not,” Gadhafi said, as the channel broadcast apparently archived footage of his supporters.

Calling himself the “father of Libya,” Gadhafi urged his followers to “go forward, go forward” _ perhaps a battle cry as anti-government forces encroached upon Tripoli, where unusually heavy clashes and explosions fueled reports that the battle for the capital had begun.

Gadhafi’s comments came after a dizzying day in Libya with widespread rumors of the dictator’s flight from power and a resurgent rebellion that threatened to topple Gadhafi.

Earlier, rebels fighting against the Libyan leader claimed to have captured three crucial cities in their advance toward Tripoli this weekend. It was unclear, however, how extension the fighting was in the capital.

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, urged calm in a brief televised address Saturday evening. He didn’t address reports of an uprising inside central Tripoli or the widespread and unverifiable talk that Gadhafi and his family departure. Instead, he urged residents to safeguard their property and vowed that the end was near for Gadhafi’s four-decade stranglehold on the oil-rich North African nation.

"We have always called Tripoli the capital of a free Libya," Abdul-Jalil said in a short speech that aired on the rebels' satellite channel. "We are depending on you to protect your wealth, your ports and your national institutions."

Official Washington was monitoring the developments in Libya and one State Department official speaking in the rebel city of Benghazi predicted Saturday that Gadhafi's "days are numbered."

Earlier Saturday, rebels said they'd seized control of the coastal city of Zawiya, about 30 miles from Tripoli, in a hard-won victory that capped months of false starts and heavy casualties. Still, news agencies reported, the rebels in Zawiya came under heavy shelling from government troops and it was unclear whether they'd be able to hold the refinery city.

The rebels' grasp on the eastern oil port of Brega similarly appeared tenuous, with rebel officials telling news agencies that they were forced to leave some territory in the industrial part of the city after a fresh push from Gadhafi loyalists.

Ziltan, 90 miles southeast of the capital, also was in rebel hands Saturday after more than two months of fighting.

"Ziltan is now completely liberated after a severe fight, and for the first time I can say we have control over it," said rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani, according to the Associated Press.

Tripoli residents were on edge late Saturday, with rumors flying that Gadhafi and some of his family members had fled their fortress-like compound. By early Sunday local time, there was still no confirmation.

Pentagon officials said they hadn't heard of Gadhafi leaving. The months-old NATO-led bombing campaign against regime targets in Tripoli resumed after nightfall, with explosions echoing throughout the city, witnesses said.

"I've been hearing a lot of gunfire, but I don't know where it's coming from. We also hear the NATO planes," said a woman reached by telephone in Tripoli. She asked that her name be withheld for fear of government retaliation.

"An hour or two ago, the government came on TV saying that the situation was calm and everything was under control," she said. "They even addressed the revolutionaries as rats and militant armed groups, like they always do."

Libyan state television channels made no mention of the rumored clashes in Tripoli, and a government spokesman told CNN that the capital remained under Gadhafi's control. Three state-backed channels broadcast religious programming or pro-Gadhafi videos that showed the defiant leader and the landmark Green Square in Tripoli.

On Facebook and Twitter, opposition activists inside and outside of Libya were cautiously excited about what appeared to be rebel gains after months of a virtual stalemate. They urged fellow Libyans to exercise restraint and to disseminate only confirmed news as a flurry of rumors raised hopes and then dashed them when they turned out to be false.

"It is clear that the situation is moving against Gaddafi," U.S. assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told a news conference after meeting Libyan rebel leaders at their headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi. "The opposition continues to make substantial gains on the ground while his forces grow weaker," Feltman said. "It is time for Gaddafi to go and we firmly believe that his days are numbered."

(Special correspondent Refaat Ahmed contributed from Cairo.)


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