ROME (Reuters) – Eight high-ranking Libyan army officers appeared in Rome on Monday saying they were part of a group of as many as 120 military officials and soldiers who had defected from Muammar Gaddafi’s side in recent days.
The eight officers — five generals, two colonels and a major — spoke at a hastily-called news conference organised by the Italian government, which is one of a handful of countries that has recognized the Libyan rebel movement fighting Gaddafi as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
“What is happening to our people has frightened us,” said one officer, who identified himself as General Oun Ali Oun.
“There is a lot of killing, genocide … violence against women. No wise, rational person with the minimum of dignity can do what we saw with our eyes and what he asked us to do.”
Another officer, General Salah Giuma Yahmed, said Gaddafi’s army was weakening day by day, with the force reduced to 20 percent of its original capacity.
“Gaddafi’s days are numbered,” said Yahmed.
Libyan U.N. ambassador Abdurrahman Shalgam, who has also defected from Gaddafi, said all 120 military personnel were outside Libya now but did not say where they were.
Earlier, Al Arabiya television said 120 Libyan officers had arrived in Rome. The Libyan ambassador to Rome, yet another defector, said only the eight present at the news conference were in the Italian capital.
The defectors said they escaped Libya over its western border into Tunisia via crossings controlled by the rebels.
“This will create its own momentum against Gaddafi, increasing the pressure on him,” British-based Libyan opposition activist and editor Ashour Shamis said on the defections.
Each defection was the result of a combination of factors, said Noman Benotman, another opposition activist who works as an analyst for Britain’s Quilliam Foundation think tank.
But the latest group had been spurred largely by tensions, Benotman said, arising from the appointment of what he called newcomers to senior positions in the security services.
The behavior of these men, many of them relatively youthful Gaddafi loyalists in their mid-30s, had stirred anger and dismay among the army’s officer ranks, who regarded their actions as overbearing and brutal, Benotman said.
“The army officers feel they are being watched all the time. They feel uncomfortable because they feel a lack of trust. So at the first chance of defection they took it,” he said.
He added that many of the newly appointed senior security officials were Gaddafi relatives.