Hussein Malla, Associated Press
BENGHAZI, Libya — Army units and militiamen loyal to Moammar Gadhafi struck back against rebellious protesters who have risen up in cities close to the capital Thursday, attacking a mosque where many had taken refuge and battling with others who had seized control of a local airport.
The assaults aimed to push back a revolt that has moved closer to Gadhafi's bastion in the capital, Tripoli. The uprising has already broken away nearly the eastern half of Libya and unraveled parts of Gadhafi's regime.
In the latest blow to the Libyan leader, a cousin who is one of his closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, announced that he has defected to Egypt in protest against the regime's bloody crackdown against the uprising, denouncing what he called "grave violations to human rights and human and international laws."
In the city of Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, an army unit attacked a mosque where regime opponents had been camping inside and in a lot outside for several days in a protest calling for Gadhafi's ouster, a witness said. The soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons and hit the mosque's minaret with fire from an anti-aircraft gun, he said. Some of the young men among the protesters had hunting rifles for protection.
He said there were casualties, but couldn't provide exact figures. He said a day earlier an envoy from Gadhafi had come to the city and warned the mosque protesters, "Either leave or you will see a massacre." Zawiya is a key city near an oil port and refineries.
"What is happening is horrible, those who attacked us are not the mercenaries; they are sons of our country," he said, sobbing. After the assault, thousands massed in the city's main Martyrs Square, shouting "leave, leave," in reference to Gadhafi, he said.
"People came to send a clear message:Wwe are not afraid of death or your bullets," he said. "This regime will regret it. History will not forgive them."
The other attack came at a small airport outside Misrata, Libya's third largest city, where rebel residents claimed control Wednesday. Militiamen with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars barraged a line of them who were guarding the airport, some armed with automatic rifles and hunting rifles, said one of the rebels who was involved in the battle.
During the fighting, the airport's defenders seized an anti-aircraft gun used by the militias and turned it against them, he said. He said dead and wounded had been taken to Misrata hospitals but could not give exact figures.
The militias pulled back in the late morning. In Misrata, the local radio — controlled by the opposition like the rest of the city — called on residents to march to the airport to reinforce it, said another resident. In the afternoon, it appeared fighting erupted again, she said, reporting heavy booms from the direction of the airport on the edge of the city, located about 120 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli.
They and other witnesses around Libya spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Gadhafi's crackdown has so far helped him maintain control of Tripoli, a city that holds about a third of Libya's 6 million population. But the uprising has divided the country and threatened to push it toward civil war: In cities across the east, residents rose up and overwhelmed government buildings and army bases, joined in many cases by local army units that defeected. In those cities, tribal leaders, residents and military officers have formed local administrations, passing out weapons looted from the security forces' arsenals.
The leader's cousin, Gadhaf al-Dam, is one of the most high level defections to hit the regime so far, after many ambassadors around the world, the justice minister and the interior minister all sided with the protesters.
Gadhaf al-Dam belonged to Gadhafi's inner circle, officially his liaison with Egypt, but he also served as Gadhafi's envoy to other world leaders and frequently appeared by his side.
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