Libyan protesters defiant after Gadhafi speech

Egyptians, who have just crossed Salloum land port gate with Libya, at background, arrange their luggage on a mini bus on Wednesday, February 23. Turkey evacuated 3,000 citizens on two ships Wednesday from the chaos of Libya’s uprising but thousands of other foreigners were still stranded at Tripoli airport, struggling to get a flight home. Several countries- Russia, Germany and Ukraine among them sent more planes to help their citizens escape the turmoil engulfing the North African nation and the United States said Americans would be evacuated by ferry later on Wednesday to the Mediterranean island of Malta. (AP Photo)
CAIRO, February 23 (AP): Heavy gunfire broke out in Tripoli as forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi tightened their grip on the Libyan capital while anti-government protesters claimed control of many cities elsewhere and top government officials and diplomats turn against the longtime leader.
While residents of cities in the eastern half of the country celebrated, raising the flags of the old monarchy, the mood in Tripoli was bleak. Residents were afraid to leave their houses, saying pro-Gadhafi forces were opening fire randomly in the streets.  International outrage mounted a day after Gadhafi vowed to defend his rule and called on supporters to crack down on anti-government protesters. Gadhafi's retaliation has already been the harshest in the Arab world to the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East.
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.  The fighting in Tripoli came as the opposition reportedly seized control of Misrata, with witnesses saying people were honking their horns and raising pre-Gadhafi flags from the monarchy to celebrate.
Misrata would be the first major city in the west to fall to anti-government forces, which have mainly been concentrated in the east. Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor, said six residents had been killed and 200 injured since Feb. 18, when protesters attacked offices and buildings affiliated with Gadhafi's regime.
He said residents had formed committees to protect the city, clean the streets and treat the injured.  "The solidarity among the people here is amazing, even the disabled are helping out," he said in a telephone interview.
New videos posted by Libya's opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the flag from the pre-Gadhafi monarchy on a building in Zawiya, on the outskirts of Tripoli. Another showed protesters lining up cement blocks and setting tires ablaze to fortify positions on a square inside the capital.  The footage couldn't be independently confirmed.
Gadhafi defiantly vowed to fight to his "last drop of blood" and roared at supporters to strike back against Libyan protesters to defend his embattled regime Tuesday in a televised speech that served as an all-out call for his backers to impose control over the capital and take back other cities.
After a week of upheaval, protesters backed by defecting army units have claimed control over almost the entire eastern half of Libya's 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) Mediterranean coast, including several oil-producing areas.
"You men and women who love Gadhafi ... get out of your homes and fill the streets," Gadhafi said. "Leave your homes and attack them in their lairs."
Celebratory gunfire by Gadhafi supporters rang out in the capital of Tripoli after the leader's speech, while in protester-held Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, people threw shoes at a screen showing his address, venting their contempt.
A woman who lives near downtown Tripoli said heavy gunfire erupted Wednesday morning as armed Gadhafi backers and mercenaries hired from other countries opened fire on the streets. She said her nephew has been missing since Tuesday.  "He went to join the protests and he didn't come back. The whole family is panicking," she said. "We are under siege."
She said the streets were empty and even injured people couldn't go to the hospital for fear of being shot.  Gadhafi appears to have lost the support of at least one major tribe, several military units and his own diplomats, including Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Adjali, and deputy U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi.
The Libyan Embassy in Austria also condemned the use of "excessive violence against peaceful demonstrators" and said in a statement Wednesday that it was representing the Libyan people.
International alarm has risen over the crisis, which sent oil prices soaring to the highest level in more than two years on Tuesday and sparked a scramble by European and other countries to get their citizens out of the North African nation. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting that ended with a statement condemning the crackdown, expressing "grave concern" and calling for an "immediate end to the violence" and steps to address the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also pressed Wednesday for European Union sanctions against Libya's regime because of its violent crackdown on protesters, and raised the possibility of cutting all economic and business ties between the EU and the North African nation.
"The continuing brutal and bloody repression against the Libyan civilian population is revolting," Sarkozy said in a statement. "The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights."  Italian news reports have said witnesses and hospital sources in Libya are estimating there are 1,000 dead in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, alone.
"We have no complete information about the number of people who have died," Frattini said in a speech to a Catholic organization in Rome ahead of a briefing in Parliament on Libya.
 "We believe that the estimates of about 1,000 are credible."  Libya is the biggest supplier of oil to Italy, which has extensive energy, construction and other business interests in the north African country and decades of strong ties.  Frattini said the Italian government is asking that the "horrible bloodshed" cease immediately despite Gadhafi's vow to fight on and cling to power.
Egypt's cabinet, under attack, meets for first time

CAIRO, February 23 (Reuters):
Egypt's new cabinet met for the first time on Wednesday with security high on its agenda and under attack from the Muslim Brotherhood and others who want it purged of ministers appointed by ousted president Hosni Mubarak. In preparation for polls that military rulers have promised to hand over power to civilian rule in six months, activists announced the forming of a new political party on Wednesday.
The Brotherhood and other political groups have called for another million-man-march on Friday to fill Cairo's central Tahrir Square, which was the nerve-center for opposition to Mubarak's 30-year iron rule, to call for a new cabinet. Banned under Mubarak and playing an increasingly active role in Egyptian political life since the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, the Brotherhood wants the lifting of emergency law, freeing of political prisoners and a purge of the cabinet.
The cabinet will discuss security issues in the post-Mubarak era and the provision of basic foods and subsidies on Wednesday, political sources said. Despite political pressure, there are unlikely to be further changes in the cabinet, they added. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that is running the Arab world's most populous nation, swore in 10 new ministers on Tuesday, some who had opposed Mubarak, but key portfolios were unchanged.
"The main ministries of defense, justice, interior and foreign remain unchanged, signaling Egypt's politics remain in the hands of Mubarak and his cronies," senior Brotherhood member Essam el-Erian told Reuters, reacting to the new line-up. In the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections, a committee is amending the constitution to dismantle the apparatus that propped up Mubarak's rule and political parties are being registered ahead of the polls.
A former diplomat, Abdallah Alashaal, was quoted by MENA news agency on Wednesday as saying he was setting up a new political party "Egypt the Free" to participate in the polls. "The establishment of the party comes within the framework and desire to make a real representation of the youth of January 25 revolution during the coming period," Alashaal said. The Brotherhood and youth groups are anxious that the emergency law, imposed after the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamist soldiers from his army in 1981, be lifted but some Cairo residents were not so sure.
"For now, they shouldn't cancel the emergency law because there are thousands and thousands of thugs out there but ultimately, yes, they have to remove it because police were mistreating lot of people through it," Somaya Mohamed, a retiree, told Reuters on Wednesday.
"I don't see anything wrong with the politics of (prime minister) Ahmed Shafiq, he has a white track record," he said, adding: "I think the youth is simply against anything that the president said that's all, they wanted to put an end to him and whatever he said."
Another priority facing the cabinet is getting the nation back to work and to stop the protests and strikes that have damaged an economy that had already been damaged by the turmoil of the revolution which erupted on January 25. The Egyptian stock market, which closed two days after the uprising started, has announced that it will stay shut until next week.