Saturday, February 26, 2011

Libya: Qaddafi arms his civilian supporters

Libya's old national flag flutters as anti-government demonstrators gather for a protest in the eastern city of Tobruk, Feb. 25, 2011. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

Libya: Qaddafi arms his civilian supporters

(CBS/AP) Last Updated 10:26 a.m. ET

TRIPOLI, Libya - The embattled regime of Muammar Qaddafi is arming civilian supporters to set up checkpoints and roving patrols around the Libyan capital to control movement and quash dissent, residents said Saturday.

Rebels hold a long sweep of about half of Libya's 1,000-mile Mediterranean coastline where most of the population lives, and even captured a brigadier general and a soldier Saturday as the Libyan army tried to retake an air base east of Tripoli.

The reports came a day after protesters demanding Qaddafi's ouster came under a hail of bullets when pro-regime militiamen opened fire to stop the first significant anti-government marches in days in the Libyan capital.

The Libyan leader, speaking from the ramparts of a historic Tripoli fort, told supporters to prepare to defend the nation as he faced the biggest challenge to his 42-year rule, with rebels having seized control of about half of the country's coastline.

"At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire," Qaddafi said.

The international community stepped up its response to the bloodshed, while Americans and other foreigners were evacuated from the chaos roiling the North African nation.

Some estimates indicate more than 1,000 people have been killed in less than two weeks since the revolution began.

The U.N. Security Council planned to meet Saturday for a second day to consider an arms embargo against the Libyan government and a travel ban and asset freeze against Qaddafi, his relatives and key members of his government.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday freezing assets held by Qaddafi and four of his children in the United States. The Treasury Department said the sanctions against Qaddafi, three of his sons and a daughter also apply to the Libyan government.

"Although there are those who doubt that sanctions can have an immediate impact, they send a strong message to those still around the Libyan leader that the international wagons are circling and that time and history are against his remaining in power," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk.

A U.N. Security Council Resolution, combined with the condemnation and inquiry by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva and a likely vote next week by the U.N. General Assembly to suspend Libya, Falk added, sends a unified message that Qaddafi has nowhere to turn.?

In Tripoli, most residents remained in their homes Saturday, terrified of bands of armed men running checkpoints and patrolling the city.

A 40-year-old business owner said he had seen Qaddafi supporters enter one of the regime's Revolutionary Committee headquarters Saturday and leave with arms.

He said the regime is offering a car and money to any supporters bringing three people with them to join the effort.

"Someone from the old revolutionary committees will go with them so they'll be four," the witness said when reached by telephone from Cairo. "They'll arm them to drive around the city and terrorize people."

Other residents reported seeing trucks full of civilians with automatic rifles patrolling their neighborhoods. Many of the men are young, even teenagers, and wear green arm bands or cloths on their heads to show their affiliation to the regime, residents said. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella, reporting from Tripoli, said it was quiet in her part of the city Saturday, but there are signs the revolt is inching closer to the capital.

In the city's suburbs, anti-government protesters tried marching for the first time in days after Friday prayers. Witnesses say government forces answered with automatic weapons, shooting from rooftops.

Just 30 miles to the west, in the coastal city of Az-Zawiyah, pro-government forces reportedly are gone and Qaddafi's soldiers are abandoning him and joining the opposition.

In opposition-controlled cities, fear of the regime has turned to disgust.

Yet Libya wants the world to see scenes of support for the embattled leader. On Friday several hundred Qaddafi backers loudly swore their allegiance.

Qaddafi himself made a surprise appearance to show his people he's still alive and still defiant, calling on the crowd to prepare to defend the nation and its oil.

The leader's son is on a campaign of his own to control the message, meeting the world's reporters in a five-star hotel to announce that Libyans are united behind his father. Seif Qaddafi blamed the unrest on what he calls a small group of terrorists, and denied that the government had fired on its own people.