Chaos in Libya As Air Force Reportedly Fires on Protesters

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A Libyan air force jet after landing in Malta.Photo: Lior Mizrahi /Getty Images

Until Monday, protests in Libya were mostly confined to the second-largest city of Benghazi. But after spreading to the capital of Tripoli yesterday, things escalated quickly, and the government's hold on power in the city appears to be collapsing.

Security forces loyal to Mr. Qaddafi defended a handful of strategic locations, including the state television headquarters and the presidential palace, witnesses reported from Tripoli. Fires from the previous night’s rioting burned at many intersections, most stores were shuttered, and long lines were forming for a chance to buy bread or gas.

As the demonstrations became more widespread, the government's response became increasingly violent. There's basically zero media presence in Tripoli, so it's difficult to know what exactly is going on. But according to various reports throughout the day, the regime has unleashed both mercenary militiamen and its own air force on the protesters. The New York Times reports that "planes dropped what witnesses described as 'small bombs' and helicopters fired on protesters today," while Al Jazeera received similar accounts from eye witnesses.

The military didn't entirely fall in line with such indiscriminate mass murder. According to Al Jazeera English, two "senior colonels" in the Libyan air force reportedly fled to nearby Malta in their fighter jets after "seeing their fellow pilots" begin to carry out orders to attack protesters in Benghazi.

Further defections took place within the diplomatic ranks. Along with the resignations of various Libyan ambassadors, Libya's U.N. delegation has condemned Qaddafi in the strongest terms possible. "We are sure that what is going on now in Libya is crimes against humanity and crimes of war,” the deputy permanent representative, Ibrahim Dabbashi told reporters at the Libyan mission in Manhattan today. "The regime of Qaddafi has already started the genocide against the Libyan people.”

Meanwhile, the response from the United States has been muted, partly because it's a national holiday and partly because there's probably not a lot the Obama administration can do. By the end of the day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had released a statement full of boilerplate shaming:

"The world is watching the situation in Libya with alarm. We join the international community in strongly condemning the violence in Libya. Our thoughts and prayers are with those whose lives have been lost, and with their loved ones. The government of Libya has a responsibility to respect the universal rights of the people, including the right to free expression and assembly. Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed. We are working urgently with friends and partners around the world to convey this message to the Libyan government."

What comes next? According to Al-Arabiya, Qaddafi, wherever he is, may give a speech soon. What he says is anyone's guess. As Hosni Mubarak discovered not too long ago, anything short of a resignation will surely be ineffective at this point. You can't really just bury the hatchet after something like this. At the same time, in a conversation with U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon today, Qaddafi "indicated he was committed to do anything to maintain his grip on power."

Live Blog - Libya [Al Jazeera English]
UPDATE 1-Military aircraft attack Libya crowds - Al Jazeera [Reuters]
Warplanes and Militia Fire on Protesters in Libyan Capital [NYT]