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Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi holds a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels April 27, 2004.

Yves Herman/Reuters/Yves Herman/Reuters

As the circle of political and military support around him dwindles to an increasingly small and desperate rump and protesters take control of a growing swath of Libya, dictator Moammar Gadhafi has become increasingly erratic and unpredictable, alternating between brutal attacks and attempts at appeasement and co-operation.

On a day when hundreds of thousands of Arabs took to the streets in the capitals of half a dozen countries across the Middle East and North Africa, Libya appeared to be the most volatile and deadly on Friday, and its strongman leader the most likely to fall or flee. Instead, Col. Gadhafi remained in his redoubt in Tripoli while the conflict consuming the country escalated, prompting further defections by top regime officials and the imposition of international sanctions organized by the United States.

Residents of key cities to the immediate east and west of Tripoli, Misurata and Zawiyah, interviewed by telephone or after crossing the border into Tunisia on Friday, described scenes of violent street combat, with protesters gaining the upper hand despite live-ammunition gunfire from Col. Ghadafi's mercenaries. The opposition, they reported, is firmly in control of the country's eastern third and most of the south.

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Most seriously for Col. Gadhafi, personnel at Tripoli's Mitiga air force base - a former U.S. installation seized by Col. Gadhafi in his 1969 coup and considered a key military asset - have defected and joined the opposition, according to statements from officers and credible reports.

In the cities to the west of Tripoli, residents spoke of violent struggles with mercenaries but little visible military presence. "The army was not there. They are not firing or even standing in the way - it looks to us like the soldiers and officers have all gone away and joined the protest," said Mohammad Ubadi, a medical-clinic worker in Zawiyah.

Tripoli residents said by phone and e-mail that sections of the capital are now held by protesters. After hiding in their houses in the wake of Monday's violent reprisals, people emerged from the city's mosques after Friday prayers to take part in a new round of protests after jeering the regime-written sermons all imams were ordered to deliver.

Col. Gadhafi and his son Saif responded with a series of desperate and sometimes strange statements.

First Col. Gadhafi made a show of encouraging pro-government demonstrators in Tripoli's central Green Square with a televised speech from a rooftop overlooking part of the square, urging people to "sing, dance and prepare yourselves" because "life without green flags has no value" - the green flag being the symbol of his regime.

He then urged the small crowd of loyalists around him and on TV to take up arms and fight the protesters - a genuine threat as a good proportion of Libyans are armed.

"Get ready to fight for Libya!" he yelled. "Get ready to fight for dignity! Get ready to fight for petroleum! We will fight them and we will beat them. … The people are armed and when necessary, we will open the arsenals to arm all the Libyan people and the Libyan tribes."

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That scorched-earth language was contradicted several hours later by Saif Gadhafi, who addressed a hand-picked group of reporters flown to Tripoli (and forbidden from leaving their hotel to report on the protests or shootings), saying that he would be negotiating toward a peace settlement with the protest movement - and appearing to acknowledge that the military is no longer following the family's orders.

"In Misurata, in Zawiyah, we have a problem," Saif Gadhafi said. "We are dealing with terrorists. The army decided not to attack the terrorists, and to give a chance to negotiation. Hopefully we will do it peacefully, and will do so by tomorrow."

Those words reached a world that appeared to have finally lost patience with the Gadhafis. The United States announced the imposition of unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Libya, including an immediate end to the military co-operation between the two countries that had flowered after Col. Gadhafi renounced terrorism and opened his country's economy in the early 2000s.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy - who had been late in supporting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt - became the first leader to call openly for Col. Gadhafi's departure Friday.

As he spoke, the United Nations Security Council was preparing to pass a resolution that would impose further sanctions on Libya, a travel ban on its ruling family and a freeze on any assets - believed to be in the billions - held in foreign banks.

Among the most outspoken voices calling for sanctions were those who until a week ago were Col. Gadhafi's loyal ambassadors and ministers.

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His former deputy UN ambassador, who quit along with a dozen other ambassadors to side with the protesters, delivered an impassioned speech calling for the Libyan leader's resignation on Friday.

"The dictator regime in Tripoli is in its last moments," Ibrahim Dabbashi told reporters. "He might seek to send some of his family members abroad, but I believe he prefers to die in Libya because of his narcissistic character. He wants to act like a hero."

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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