Libyan military units defecting; Gadhafi left with ex-Soviet special forces

Tuesday, February 22, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

CAIRO Units of Libya's military were said to be defecting to the opposition in the war to oust the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Opposition sources said Libyan Army soldiers have refused orders to fire on anti-regime demonstrators while pilots have flown their aircraft abroad. They said in some cases entire Libyan units, despite threats of execution, have joined the protesters in their effort to topple Gadhafi, reported to have already found asylum.

The sources said Gadhafi could no longer rely on his military and much of his police. They said the remaining loyalists were his Presidential Guard and special units comprised of foreign mercenaries, many of whom are from the former Soviet Union.

"They are just firing at everybody with everything they have, including machine guns and anti-tank missiles," another opposition source said.

The defections within the military were said to have alarmed Gadhafi.

"There have been several cases which a Libyan Army unit attacked Gadhafi's security forces rather than join them," an opposition source said.

[On Feb. 21, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague reported that Gadhafi was seeking asylum abroad. Hague said the Libyan leader has escaped and was heading for Venezuela. Later, a Libyan official said Gadhafi was still in Tripoli.]

The Qatari satellite channel A-Jazeera reported that Libyan military officers issued a statement that called on their colleagues to defect. It was not clear how many officers signed the statement.

One Army unit that joined the anti-regime forces was identified as the Thunderbolt Battalion. The sources said Thunderbolt attacked the Presidential Guard, the personal force of Gadhafi, in Benghazi, the second largest city in the North African state.

"Thunderbolt played a significant role in the opposition takeover of Benghazi," the source said.

The sources reported the first defections of Libyan soldiers on Feb. 20 in Benghazi. They said both soldiers and officers refused orders by the military brass to shoot protesters and were instead allowing them to take over facilities and seize weapons.

So far, more than 600 people have been killed in the opposition campaign against the 68-year-old Gadhafi. The sources said protesters have taken over several cities and torched parliament, government buildings, police stations in the capital of Tripoli.

The sources said Gadhafi has demanded that both the Air Force and Navy fire on units that refuse orders to battle protesters. At the same time, two Libyan Air Force aircraft, identified as the French-origin Mirages, landed in Malta and their pilots requested asylum.

For its part, the regime has maintained that the military remained under control but acknowledged the opposition seizure of military bases and heavy weapons. The son of Gadhafi, Seif Al Islam, appeared on state television and asserted that his father would not leave office. Seif warned of a civil war in which Libya's oil fields would be destroyed.

"The armed forces are with him," Seif, his first public appearance in months, said. "Tens of thousands are heading here to be with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet."

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