The scope of Muammar Gaddafi’s control is being whittled away as major Libyan cities and towns closer to the capital fall to the rebellion against his rule.
In the east, now all but broken away, the opposition vowed to “liberate” Tripoli, where the Libyan leader is holed up with a force of militiamen roaming the streets and tanks guarding the outskirts.
In a further sign of Mr Gaddafi’s faltering hold, two air force pilots – one from the leader’s own tribe – parachuted out of their warplane and let it crash into the eastern Libyan desert rather than follow orders to bomb an opposition-held city.
International momentum was building for action to punish Mr Gaddafi’s regime for the bloody crackdown it has unleashed against the uprising that began February 15.
US President Barack Obama said the suffering and bloodshed in Libya “is outrageous and it is unacceptable,” and he directed his administration to prepare a full range of options, including possible sanctions that could freeze the assets and ban travel to the US by Libyan officials.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the possibility of the European Union cutting off economic ties. Another proposal gaining some traction was for the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent it using warplanes to hit protesters.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that if reports of such strikes are confirmed, “there’s an immediate need for that level of protection”.
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.
In Tripoli, Mr Gaddafi’s stronghold, protest organisers called for new rallies on Thursday and Friday, raising the potential for a more bloody confrontation.
Militiamen and Gaddafi supporters – a mix of Libyans and foreign African fighters bused in – roamed the capital’s main streets, called up on Tuesday night by the Libyan leader in a fist-pounding speech in which he vowed to fight to the death. The gunmen fired weapons in the air, chanting Long live Gaddafi, and waved green flags. With a steady rain, streets were largely empty, residents said.