"I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela," says Gaddafi

Gaddafi denies fleeing as 41-year rule teeters, cities overrun

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Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi denied late Monday he had fled the country, as protests spread to the capital, regime loyalists quit, and fighter pilots defected after being ordered to fire on demonstrators.

Gaddafi's comments in a brief television appearance were the first since the protests erupted last Tuesday in the east of the oil-rich north African nation he has ruled for 41 years.

"It's just to prove that I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela and to deny television reports, those dogs," the Libyan leader said, holding up an umbrella in pouring rain as he headed into a car.

Gaddafi moved to scotch rumors he had fled to Venezuela as the pillars of his regime began to crumble with protesters overrunning several cities, not long after the rulers of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia were forced out.

"I am going to meet with the youth in Green Square" in downtown Tripoli, he said, in what state television reported was a live broadcast from outside the 68-year-old strongman's home.

The president of Yemen, another ruler who has chalked up more than three decades in power, also defied calls to quit saying he would only exit if defeated at the ballot box.

While there was fresh violence in several Arab cities, the most dramatic events were in Tripoli where heavy gunfire broke out in downtown areas for the first time since the uprising began a week ago.

Despite the brief 22-second appearance, Gaddafi's grip on the country appeared increasingly shaky as loyalists quit and fighter pilots defected after being ordered to fire on demonstrators.

The uprising has now spread to the capital, with gunfire rattling Tripoli, where protesters attacked police stations and the offices of the state broadcaster -- Gaddafi's mouthpiece -- and set government buildings ablaze.

"Hideouts of saboteurs"

Pro-Gaddafi militia drove through Tripoli with loudspeakers and told people not to leave their homes, witnesses said, as security forces sought to keep the unrest that swept eastern parts of the country from overwhelming the capital of 2 million people.

State TV said the military had "stormed the hideouts of saboteurs" and urged the public to back security forces. Protesters called for a demonstration in Tripoli's central Green Square and in front of Gaddafi's residence, but witnesses in various neighborhoods described a scene of intimidation: helicopters hovering above the main seaside boulevard and pro-Gaddafi gunmen firing from moving cars and even shooting at the facades of homes to terrify the population.

Residents of two districts in Tripoli told AFP in Cairo by telephone there had been "a massacre," with gunmen "firing indiscriminately" in Tajura district.

Another witness in Fashlum told AFP that helicopters had landed what he called armed African mercenaries in the neighborhood, who opened fire on anyone in the street, causing a large number of deaths.

Despite signs Gaddafi's power is loosening, the Middle East's longest-ruling leader sent out a warning through his son that he was ready for a fight to the death.

In a rambling televised address, Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam on Monday warned of a "fight to the last bullet" and said "rivers of blood will run through Libya" if protesters did not accept offers of reform.

But in a sign of deep cracks developing in the regime, Libya's deputy ambassador to the United Nations called for Gaddafi to quit, accusing him of "genocide" and saying he should stand trial for war crimes.

"He has to leave as soon as possible. He has to stop killing the Libyan people," Ibrahim Dabbashi told media at the United Nations in New York.

Although government restrictions have complicated the task of compiling a tally, Human Rights Watch said 233 had been killed in the uprising while the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) put the toll at 300-400.

Cities overrun

IFHR head Souhayr Belhassen said several eastern cities, including the second city of Benghazi and Sirte, had fallen to demonstrators after army units formerly loyal to Kadhafi defected.

Media reports said Libya's justice minister, Mustapha Abdeljalil, had also resigned along with Libya's Arab League envoy and Tripoli's ambassador to Delhi as well as a diplomat in Beijing.

Two Libyan fighter pilots -- both colonels -- flew their single-seater Mirage F1 jets to Malta and said they had defected after being ordered to attack protesters in Benghazi, Maltese military told AFP.

"It's definitely the end of the regime. This has never happened in Libya before. We are praying that it ends quickly," one resident of east Tripoli told AFP in Cairo by phone.

A Latin American national living in Tripoli's upscale Gargaresh suburb reported seeing several burnt tyres and a torched truck and car during a brief outing on Monday.

"We passed a barricade manned by men armed with Kalashnikovs," he said, adding: "I was very scared, they had arrested a couple of Africans."

The turmoil sent London oil prices soaring close to $107 per barrel, and the Fitch agency downgraded Libya's debt rating.

British energy giant BP said it was preparing to evacuate some staff from Libya, which holds Africa's biggest oil reserves, and French oil giant Total said it was repatriating most of its foreign employees and their families.

The United States also ordered all non-essential personnel to leave Libya.

No communications

Communications to Tripoli appeared to have been cut, and residents could not be reached by phone from outside the country. State TV showed video of hundreds of Gaddafi supporters rallying in Green Square, waving palm fronds and pictures of him.

State TV quoted Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, as saying the military conducted airstrikes on remote areas, away from residential neighborhoods, on munitions warehouses, denying reports that warplanes attacked Tripoli and Benghazi.

Jordanians who fled Libya gave horrific accounts of a "bloodbath" in Tripoli, saying they saw people shot, scores of burned cars and shops, and what appeared to be armed mercenaries who looked as if they were from other African countries.

Tripoli was largely shut down Monday, with schools, government offices and most stores closed, except for a few bakeries, said residents, who hunkered down in their homes.

An expert on Libya said she believed the regime was collapsing.

"Unlike the fall of the regime in Tunisia and Egypt, this is going to be a collapse into a civil war," said Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo, and a Libya expert.

Benghazi's airport was closed, according to an airport official in Cairo. A Turkish Airlines flight trying to land in Benghazi to evacuate Turkish citizens was turned away Monday, told by ground control to circle over the airport, then to return to Istanbul.