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Revolt Escalates In Libya: Rebels Weaken Gadhafi’s Grip – Knoxville News Sentinel
The scope of Moammar Gadhafi’s control was whittled away Wednesday as major Libyan cities and towns closer to the capital fell to the rebellion against his rule. In the east, now all but broken away, the opposition vowed to “liberate” Tripoli, where the Libyan leader is holed up with a force of militiamen roaming the streets and tanks guarding the outskirts.
In a further sign of Gadhafi’s faltering hold, two air force pilots parachuted out of their warplane and let it crash into the eastern Libyan desert rather than follow orders to bomb an opposition-held city.
International alarm has risen over the crisis and is sending oil prices soaring. Oil prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange hit $100 per barrel Wednesday for the first time in 2 1/2 years, and gasoline prices in the U.S. climbed to nearly $3.20 a gallon, the highest level ever for February.
University of Tennessee economist Matt Murray said continued unrest in the Middle East will push oil prices higher, which means gasoline prices will continue to increase. Prices at some Knoxville-area stations rose above $3 a gallon for regular unleaded gas Wednesday, according to AAA East Tennessee.
Analysts say any production declines in Libya could likely be absorbed by other producers like Saudi Arabia. Libyan oil accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. crude imports.
“Libya itself is a very small contributor to the global oil supply… Broader concerns are the entire Mideast region,” Murray said.
If protests spread to Saudi Arabia, one of the largest oil producers, that would have a “huge psychological and real effect on oil prices,” Murray said.
International momentum was building for action to punish Gadhafi’s regime for the bloody crackdown it has unleashed against the uprising that began Feb. 15.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were “credible,” although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
In Tripoli, Gadhafi’s stronghold, protest organizers called for new rallies today and Friday, raising the potential for a bloodier confrontation.
Militiamen and Gadhafi supporters – a mix of Libyans and foreign African fighters bused in – roamed the capital’s main streets, called up Tuesday night by the Libyan leader in a fist-pounding speech in which he vowed to fight to the death. The gunmen fired weapons in the air, chanting “Long live Gadhafi,” and waved green flags. With a steady rain, streets were largely empty, residents said.
In many neighborhoods, residents set up watch groups to keep militiamen out, barricading streets with concrete blocks, metal and rocks, and searching those trying to enter, a Tripoli activist said.
Gadhafi’s residence at Tripoli’s Aziziya Gates was guarded by loyalists along with a line of armed militiamen in vehicles, some masked, the activist said.
Below the surface, protesters were organizing, said the activist. At night, they fan out and spray-paint anti-Gadhafi graffiti or set fires near police stations, chanting, “The people want the ouster of the regime,” he said.
In opposition-controlled Benghazi, the eastern city where the uprising began, residents held a mass rally outside the city’s main courthouse, vowing to support protests in the capital, said Farag al-Warfali, a banker. They also called a one-day fast in solidarity with them.
Afterward, young men went into the courthouse to register to obtain weapons, which had been looted from police stations and military bases and then turned over to the city’s new rulers, he said.
The idea is to “take their weapons and march toward Tripoli,” al-Warfali said, although Benghazi lies 580 miles east of the capital, and territory still loyal to Gadhafi lies between them.
There were similar calls in Misrata – several hours’ drive from Tripoli, the closest major city to the capital to fall to anti-government forces. A mosque called residents to come to “jihad,” or holy war, in support of the anti-Gadhafi camp, said one resident.
The extent of Gadhafi’s control over the country he has ruled for 41 years had been reduced to the western coastal region around Tripoli, the deserts to the south and parts of the center.
But his territory was being eroded.
The opposition said Wednesday that it had taken over Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city.
Residents honked horns in celebration and raised the pre-Gadhafi flags of the Libyan monarchy after several days of fighting that drove militiamen from the city, about 120 miles east of Tripoli, said Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor. He said six people had been killed and 200 wounded in clashes that began Feb. 18.
New videos posted by Libya’s opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the pre-Gadhafi flag on a building in Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli. The city is located near a key oil port and refineries on the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, army units in many places have sided with the rebellion.
On Wednesday, two air force pilots jumped with parachutes from their Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet and let it crash, rather than carry out orders to bomb Benghazi, the website Qureyna reported, citing an unidentified officer.
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