Libya in flames: Qaddafi wages war on protesters, son vows to fight "until the last bullet"

The war metaphor in the headline is no metaphor: Tanks, snipers, artillery, and helicopter gunships are being used against protesters in Benghazi, where more than 200 have already been shot dead. According to a journalist there, women were seen jumping off a bridge with their children as a last resort when Qaddafi’s mercenaries advanced on them. Another report claims that soldiers opened fire on mourners participating in a funeral procession. The stories I read as recently as Friday night claimed that the Libyan demonstrations wouldn’t amount to much because, for one thing, they were contained thus far to provinces that have always been anti-Qaddafi and, for another thing, if push came to shove the military would simply start mowing people down. Two days later, neither of those arguments is still convincing. Street battles replete with gunfire have broken out in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and there are eyewitness accounts of some Libyan troops switching sides. Quote:

Earlier, members of a Libyan army unit told Benghazi residents they have defected and “liberated” the city from pro-Gaddafi forces.

Speaking from the city, a local man named Benali, told Sky News that members of the Libya’s armed forces have defected and that anti-regime protesters are now in control of the city.

Habib al-Obaidi, who heads the intensive care unit at the main Al-Jalae hospital, appeared to confirm the reports, saying the “Thunderbolt” squad arrived at the hospital with soldiers who had been injured in clashes with Gaddafi’s men.

“They are now saying that they have overpowered the Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people’s revolt,” said Mr al-Obaidi.

So quickly has this ignited that, as I write this, there are rumors spreading on Twitter and being treated as semi-plausible by people in the know that Qaddafi’s already bugged out and left for Venezuela. There’s no evidence that it’s true — Libya’s essentially off-limits to media, so it’s impossible to tell facts from propaganda on either side — but the regime’s in enough trouble that Qaddafi’s son had to go on national TV within the last hour or so and vow, “We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet.” Next stop: Civil war. Sides are already being chosen, in fact:

Late on Sunday, the country’s Warfala tribe, one of the largest among Libya’s population of 6.4 million, announced it was throwing its heft behind the protesters, suggesting momentum was tipping further against Mr. Gadhafi…

In the city of Bayda, east of Benghazi and close to Libya’s border with Egypt, witnesses said local police turned their guns on the army’s second brigade after it deployed inside the city and fired live ammunition at protesters. The local police’s flip forced the surprised army forces to withdraw to the airport on the city’s outskirts, according to witnesses…

“There are really no constraints at all on what Gadhafi can do and we’ve reached the point where a lot of peaceful protesters are starting to arm themselves to do battle,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch following events in Libya.

A Libyan dissident answered Qaddafi Jr’s warning of a civil war this way: “He promised that the country would spiral into civil war for the next 30 to 40 years, that the country’s infrastructure would be ruined, hospitals and schools would no longer be functioning – but schools are already terrible, hospitals are already in bad condition.” After 42 years of fascism, poverty, and the weirdest totalitarian cult of personality this side of Kim Kong-il, there’s nothing left to lose. Read Michael Totten’s vivid account of visiting there a few years ago and see for yourself how hopeless the country’s become; even the “nicer” parts sound like rundown Havana, the less nice parts like Pyongyang.

There’s bound to be more news tomorrow, if not tonight, so stand by for updates. Exit quotation: “The United States is gravely concerned with disturbing reports and images coming out of Libya.”

Update: Another eyewitness account of Libya’s unimaginable squalor from Reason’s Michael Moynihan, who visited there last year as part of a junket paid for by Qaddafi’s allegedly reform-minded son Seif — the same son who just threatened civil war on Libyan television.

Libya ought to at least resemble a wealthy country, with its vast oil reserves and all those desperate politicians willing to do almost anything in exchange for access to them. Yet Tripoli is covered from end to end in garbage. Among the few benefits of living in a dictatorship, I had presumed, were that the trains run on time, crime is low, and armies of revolutionary trash collectors ensure that tourists tell their friends the country might not have elections but is at least exceptionally clean.

Remove the oil economy, and it isn’t entirely clear what Libyans do for money. The only shops I spot are selling either vegetables or cigarettes, sometimes both. There are markets trading in all manner of junk: old sewing machines, toilets, fake perfume (Hugo Boos seems particularly popular). The most frequently promoted product (aside from the ubiquitous face of Qaddafi staring down from countless billboards) is, inexplicably, corn oil. After decades of crippling trade sanctions under an aging and increasingly batty dictator, and with no tourism industry to speak of, Libya’s economy is a shambles. In their latest Index of Economic Freedom, the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rank the country 171st out of 179, only slightly edging out the Union of the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of Congo…

Everything in this country is delayed or nonfunctioning, from the telephone in my hotel room to the 40-year-old political system. Libya doesn’t even have a functioning postal service—which might explain why the U.S. Postal Service charges almost $300 to ship a 10-pound package to the country. It will likely be easier to undo Libya’s fractured relationship with the West than it will be to undo four decades of domestic failure.

Update: More regime defections as Libya’s ambassadors to China and the Arab League resign in protest. Note that that news is being touted on Press TV, which is funded by Iran.