TRIPOLI – Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi warned on Wednesday “thousands” would die if the West intervened to support the uprising against him, as rebels drove back an attack by his forces on an eastern town.
The chilling warning came as western powers dampened expectations of any early imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, amid a clamour from western states for action to prevent Kadhafi’s warplanes from attacking his own people.
The United States is a “long way” from deciding on whether to impose a no-fly zone, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as two US Navy ships steamed into position off Libya.
The 22-member Arab League appeared to offer an Arab and African alternative to western intervention, saying it would consider backing a no-fly zone with the African Union.
But it ruled out supporting any direct foreign military intervention in Libya.
Kadhafi’s two-and-a-half-hour speech at a ceremony of loyalists in the capital Tripoli came as the UN refugee agency made a plea for hundreds of planes to airlift “acres of people” waiting in freezing conditions to cross the Libyan border into Tunisia.
Britain said it was sending planes to airlift thousands of Egyptians stuck in refugee camps at the border, while France said it was sending a helicopter carrier to waters off Libya to help evacuate refugees.
Libyan rebels who control part of the country’s east called on the United Nations to order air strikes against mercenaries fighting for the 68-year-old leader, who seized power in a 1969 coup.
But speaking live on state television, Kadhafi warned that the “battle will be very, very long” if there is any intervention by foreign powers.
“If the Americans or the West want to enter Libya they must know it will be hell and a bloodbath — worse than Iraq.”
Addressing “our friends in Europe and the West,” he said it is “not at all in their interest to shake the Libyan regime.”
The veteran leader in an impassioned speech denied there had been any peaceful demonstrations since the uprising broke out on February 15 and challenged calls for him to step down, saying he has “no real power.”
He again blamed Al-Qaeda for the challenge to his 41-year iron-fisted rule, saying the objective was to control Libya’s land and oil.
“This is impossible, impossible. We will fight to the end, to the last man, the last woman… with God’s help.”
The ceremony was aired live shortly after rebels said they fought intense battles with forces loyal to Kadhafi who tried to retake the key eastern oil port of Brega, leaving at least 10 people dead.
Kadhafi’s forces, backed by tanks and heavy weaponry, had attacked at dawn and quickly seized the airport, an oil terminal and a university in Brega, the westernmost town held by the poorly armed Libyan opposition.
A huge blast rocked the coastal town and plumes of smoke billowed into the sky, an AFP reporter said, as clashes continued hours after the opposition said they had repelled one of the biggest pro-Kadhafi counter-offensives yet.
“Now they’re limited to the university and the gates of the oil company. Their ammunition is running out. They’re firing randomly. We’ll take these positions by nightfall,” said one rebel fighter who gave his name as Mohammad.
As fighting raged, an AFP reporter at one of the two hospitals in Brega, 200 kilometres (125 miles) southwest of Benghazi, saw the bloodied bodies of four young men in a morgue, while rebels said at least 10 people had died.
Libyan warplanes earlier Wednesday also launched airstrikes on Ajdabiya, 40 kilometres from Brega, targeting either an arms dump or a military base taken over by opposition forces, they said.
UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes told AFP in Geneva that the situation on the Libya-Tunisia border was dire.
“My colleagues on the ground say that acres of people, as far as you can see, are waiting to cross,” she said.
“They are outdoors in the freezing cold, under the rain, many of them have spent three or four nights outside already,” said the spokeswoman from the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, appealing for “tens if not hundreds of planes” to help end the gridlock.
More than 100,000 people have already left Libya to escape a vicious crackdown by Kadhafi loyalists which has left at least 1,000 dead, according to conservative UN estimates.
A spokesman for the Libyan Human Rights League said Wednesday the toll could even be as high as 6,000.
“Victims in the whole country were 6,000,” Ali Zeidan told reporters in Paris, adding that this included 3,000 in Tripoli, 2,000 in Benghazi and 1,000 elsewhere.
The two US warships entered the Mediterranean in the late afternoon on Wednesday, the Suez Canal Authority said.
The Kearsarge amphibious ready group, with about 800 marines, a fleet of helicopters and medical facilities, could support humanitarian efforts as well as military operations.
“We’re certainly moving assets to be closer (to Libya),” a US defence official told AFP in Washington on Tuesday. “A ship like the Kearsarge is capable of many types of missions.”
The United States and Britain have raised the possibility of creating a no-fly zone to prevent Kadhafi from launching air raids against his own people, with London claiming that a UN mandate was not necessarily needed.
France, however, has insisted any military action would require UN backing.
“There is no unanimity within NATO for the use of armed forces,” US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in Washington.
Anger at authoritarian Arab regimes in the Middle East and North Africa raged from Algeria to Yemen and has spread to the previously unaffected Gulf states of Kuwait and Oman, unnerving financial markets around the world.
Hundreds of Omanis demonstrated on Wednesday in support of Sultan Qaboos as more than 400 activists camped outside the Gulf state’s consultative council, in a counter-demonstration protesting corruption.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh called a senior White House aide to express regret for his searing criticism of Israel and the United States over the Arab uprisings, officials said.
Saleh called President Barack Obama’s top anti-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, a day after the White House complained he was scapegoating, after he described the Arab uprisings as an Israeli plot backed by Washington.