Libya teetered close to all-out civil war last night as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi appeared to be losing his grip on power.
Gaddafi and his family, who have ruled with an iron fist for 41 years, vowed to fight “until the last bullet” yesterday, despite protesters taking control of the country’s major cities.
In an appearance on state TV, aimed at scotching rumours that he had fled the country, Gadaffi asserted: “I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela.”
Foreign minister William Hague had said he had seen information suggesting Gaddafi was on his way to Caracas, reports dismissed by Gadaffi as “malicious rumours” spread by “hating channels”.
Protests initially centred in Benghazi, the second city, and other eastern cities, swept across Libya. The burning shell of the “Hall of the People” parliament building in the centre of the capital Tripoli became one of the defining images of the clashes.
Gaddafi yesterday ordered jets to bomb his cache of weapons and planes to stop them being reclaimed by the opposition, with civilians among the scores of casualties.
An army unit in Benghazi, is said to have switched sides and helped fight off Gaddafi supporters, who appear to have retreated from the region.
Members of Libya’s mission to the United Nations made a stinging attack on Gaddafi, branding him a genocidal war criminal.
Senior politicians, sensing a sea-change, also jumped ship, with both public security minister Abdul Fattah Younis al-Obeid and justice minister, Mustapha Abdeljalil renouncing their leader.
In a dramatic sign of Gaddafi’s weakening grip on his own military, two Libyan pilots used their jets to defect to Malta, where they have claimed asylum.
David Cameron, who became the first world leader to visit Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted, branded the Libyan response to protests “completely appalling and unacceptable”. He said: “Libya is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see their country make progress.” The incredible scenes sent investors running for cover, with gold prices rocketing and the price of oil rising to more than $107.