BENGHAZI, Libya – Moamer Kadhafi blamed Al-Qaeda on Thursday for an insurrection wracking Libya as he addressed his divided nation for the second time this week to galvanise support for his crumbling regime.
Speaking on state television, the embattled Kadhafi insisted the uprising against his 41-year rule was not a people’s revolt in the style of Egypt and Tunisia, but driven by “trigger-happy” youths “stoned with drugs” inspired by Osama bin Laden.
“These are the ones who are under Bin Laden’s influence and authority, under the influence of drugs.”
In marked contrast to a 75-minute address from a podium outside his Tripoli home on Tuesday, Kadhafi spoke by telephone from an undisclosed location in an intervention that lasted barely 20 minutes.
His decision to speak by telephone rather than make an on-screen appearance has raised questions about his whereabouts, and indicates that his power base may be shrinking.
Hundreds of people have been killed amid a brutal crackdown by Kadhafi’s forces since the uprising started in the eastern city of Benghazi on February 15, according to human rights groups, while some politicians say the toll could be as high as 1,000.
Amid growing international disgust at the bloodshed, the White House said President Barack Obama would telephone France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron later Thursday to discuss the crisis.
As fighting continued, swathes of the east of Libya have fallen to opposition control and others into lawlessness, residents and reporters said.
World governments have scrambled to evacuate stranded nationals from the oil-rich North African state as world crude prices soared close to $120 a barrel before eventually dropping back to around $114 on positive US economic data.
European defence ministers were expected to discuss the unrest shaking Libya at a meeting Thursday night, Hungary’s defence minister said, amid efforts to evacuate thousands of European citizens fleeing the violence.
Britain said it had landed a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Cumberland, at Behghazi docks to pick up more than 100 nationals fleeing the violence and take them to Malta.
Canada said it ran into problems with its evacuation effort when a private insurance company nixed a charter flight meant to take its citizens out of Libya, stranding 105 Canadians at Tripoli airport.
Other governments were also scrambling to get their citizens out of the country.
Kadhafi, 68, accused residents of Az-Zawiyah, a town 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of the capital hit by fierce fighting between his forces and rebels, of siding with the Al-Qaeda leader.
“You in Zawiyah turn to Bin Laden,” he said. “They give you drugs.”
“It is obvious now that this issue is run by Al-Qaeda,” he said, addressing the towns elders. “Those armed youngsters, our children, are incited by people who are wanted by America and the Western world.
Az-Zawiyah is a middle-class satellite town situated on the Mediterranean that is home to a number of pro-Kadhafi military officers and the site of the country’s largest oil refinery.
“Those inciting are very few in numbers and we have to capture them. Others have to stay at home. They have guns, they feel trigger happy and they shoot especially when they are stoned with drugs.”
The “situation is different from Egypt or Tunisia … Here the authority is in your hands, the people’s hands. You can change authority any way your wish. It’s your call. You are the elderly, the head of the tribes, the professors.”
“They have been brainwashing the kids in this area and tell them to misbehave.”
Meanwhile, a Libyan newspaper said 10 people were killed and dozens more wounded when pro-government forces attacked the town on Thursday.
Quoting its correspondent in Az-Zawiyah, Benghazi-based Quryna added that “the wounded cannot reach the hospitals because of shots being fired in all directions.”
Earlier, state news agency Jana said three “terrorists” attacked a security forces post there and slit the throats of three policemen.
Al-Jazeera television, reporting heavy fighting, also quoted witnesses as saying an army unit led by Kadhafi ally Naji Shifsha blasted the minaret of a mosque being occupied by protesters in Az-Zawiyah.
An AFP reporter who arrived in Benghazi on Thursday found about 1,000 demonstrators outside the local court house, the starting point of the uprising and now restyled as revolutionary headquarters.
Effigies apparently of Kadhafi hung from street lamps and children played on top of an abanadoned tank. Police stations had been gutted by fire but residents said there had been no looting.
In the capital, sustained gunfire was heard in the eastern suburbs during the night. On Thursday morning, the streets were virtually deserted.
In Zouara, towards the Tunisian border, fleeing Egyptian workers said the town was in the control of civilian militias after fierce fighting on Wednesday evening.
“Our goal now is Tripoli,” one protester told a town hall meeting addressed by defecting generals. “If Tripoli cannot liberate itself.”
A dozen army and police commanders came forward in the eastern town of Al-Baida to pronounce their support for the popular revolt, each being wildly applauded by the crowd.
“I have left my job and come to Al-Baida in solidarity with my people,” said police General Salah Mathek. “They say I am a traitor but I have principles.”
General Abdul Aziz al-Busta said he had refused orders to fire on civilians as the uprising erupted last week. “They asked us to confront the people and I refused. We cannot use our weapons on our young,” he said.
On Tuesday, Kadhafi vowed to remain as Libya’s leader, saying he would die as a martyr in the land of his ancestors and fight to the “last drop” of his blood.