Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Obama made a statement about Libya at the White House on Friday.
By DAVID K. KIRKPATRICK and ELISABETH BUMILLER
Published: March 19, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi urged President Obama and European leaders on Saturday to hold back from enforcing a no-flight zone over Libya as reports indicated that his forces were continuing to press their attacks against rebels in the east despite warnings from the United States and other Western countries that such moves would provoke military action from the West.
Libyan rebels near Ajdabiya. The opposition said people were fleeing shelling.
Colonel Qaddafi’s comments, in open letters to President Obama and other leaders that were the Libyan leader’s first public response to the threat from the West, were the latest indication that military confrontation in the skies over Libya may be imminent. And their tone suggested that Colonel Qaddafi was leaving himself little room to back down in order to avoid a clash with the West.
One letter was addressed to Mr. Obama and a second to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations.
“Libya is not yours. Libya is for all Libyans,” Colonel Qaddafi wrote, according to the government spokesman. “This is injustice, it is clear aggression, and it is uncalculated risk for its consequences on the Mediterranean and Europe.”
“You will regret it if you take a step toward intervening in our internal affairs,” he added.
President Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to a meeting in Paris on Saturday to consult with France, Britain and members of the Arab League on further action. An allied military strike on Libya did not appear imminent as he spoke.
President Obama on Friday ordered Colonel Qaddafi to carry out an immediate cease-fire, withdraw his forces from rebel-held cities and stop all attacks on Libyan civilians or face military action from the United States and its allies in Europe and the Arab world.
“Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable,” Mr. Obama said from the East Room of the White House.
Libya had pledged a cease-fire hours before. But reports on Saturday from rebel-held territory indicated that Colonel Qaddafi’s troops were attacking in the east.
In a telephone interview from Benghazi on Saturday morning, a rebel fighter who gave his name as Monsour said there was heavy fighting in the west of the city. He said he had seen 12 tanks from the Qaddafi forces moving through the city. Qaddafi snipers were atop the foreign ministry building, not far from the courthouse that is the de facto rebel headquarters, and there was fighting along Gamel Abdul Nasser street nearby as well. The government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, denied in Tripoli that pro-Qaddafi units were attacking in Benghazi and said that only the rebels had an incentive to break the cease-fire.
Earlier, the BBC also reported that tanks were in the city on Saturday morning. After the report, the BBC Web site was inaccessible in Tripoli, suggesting that it may have been blocked.
News organizations reporting from Benghazi said that a fighter jet was shot down on the outskirts of the city and several Western Web sites published a dramatic photo of the warplane plunging to the ground in flames after the pilot appeared to have ejected. It was not immediately clear whether the plane belonged to attacking Qaddafi forces or the rebels, or how it had been shot down.
The head of the rebel National Libyan Council appealed to the international community on Saturday to act swiftly to protect civilians from government forces which he said were attacking Benghazi, Reuters reported. “Now there is a bombardment by artillery and rockets on all districts of Benghazi,” Reuters said, quoting Mustafa Abdel Jalil in an appearance on Al Jazeera television. “Today in Benghazi there will be a catastrophe if the international community does not implement the resolutions of the U.N. Security
The Qaddafi government appeared earlier Saturday to be laying the groundwork for a potential strike in the name of self-defense.
Khalid Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said government intelligence showed tanks, artillery and weapons from Benghazi attacking a town in the east. Government forces, he said, were holding back to observe the cease-fire.
On Friday afternoon, people fleeing nearby Ajdabiya said government troops were shelling and conducting assaults. The western city of Misurata was under siege, its electricity and water cut by the government, and doctors reported that at least 25 people were killed, including 16 unarmed civilians. In Tripoli, the repression of peaceful protests continued, and gunfire was heard late in the evening.
In the neighborhood of Tajoura, a center of opposition where residents say several people have been shot and many have been arrested after protests in recent weeks, one resident said there was an attempt to organize a demonstration after midday prayers on Friday to celebrate the decision to declare a cease-fire. But when they left the mosque, they were met by soldiers firing into the air, this resident said. They tried again at evening prayers but soldiers blocked the entrance to the mosque, dispersed them from the central square, and put up checkpoints that blocked any care or pedestrian movement.
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David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, Libya, and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim from eastern Libya; Dan Bilefsky from the United Nations; Helene Cooper, Mark Landler and Thom Shanker from Washington; Richard Berry, Alan Cowell and Steven Erlanger from Paris; Julia Werdigier from London; and Steven Lee Myers from Tunis.