BENGHAZI, Libya, Feb 25 – Libya\’s Muammar Gaddafi blamed drug-addled Al-Qaeda followers for a fast-spreading uprising in the oil-rich state, as outraged Western allies crafted a collective response to the crisis.
Eastern Libya has fallen to opposition control and other areas into anarchy, residents and reporters said, as opponents of the mercurial leader vowed to march on the capital Tripoli and topple his four-decade-old regime.
Much of the Arab world is in revolt, following the implosion of regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrators mobilising online and on the streets in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan and Yemen all called for new mass protests on Friday.
Leading an international outcry over a Libyan death toll now running into the hundreds, US President Barack Obama consulted the leaders of Britain, France and Italy on how to "immediately" respond to Kadhafi\’s brutal crackdown.
Tens of thousands of foreigners are clamouring to flee the chaos in Libya as foreign governments lay on a mammoth evacuation operation, and the crisis has driven oil prices to two-year highs in a new threat to the global economy.
Gaddafi addressed his divided nation Thursday for the second time in three days, as his forces fought a bloody rearguard action against rebels advancing on Az-Zawiyah, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Tripoli.
Gaddafi, 68, accused Az-Zawiyah residents of siding with Al-Qaeda, and said the insurrection was driven by "trigger-happy" youths "stoned with drugs" supplied by Osama bin Laden\’s network.
"It is obvious now that this issue is run by Al-Qaeda," he said, addressing the town\’s elders in a rambling 20-minute telephoned speech relayed on state television.
But striking a more conciliatory tone than in his last speech on Tuesday, Gaddafi said the "situation is different from Egypt or Tunisia… Here the authority is in your hands, the people\’s hands".
Libyan daily Quryna said 23 people were killed and 44 wounded when pro-government forces attacked Az-Zawiyah on Thursday.
Quoting its correspondent there, the Benghazi-based Quryna said "the wounded cannot reach the hospitals because of shots being fired in all directions".
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, under fire for not cracking down firmly enough on corruption and for a lack of public services, urged Iraqis to ignore the calls for massive demonstrations in Baghdad on Friday.
In Yemen, thousands of demonstrators vowed to keep protesting after government loyalists shot dead two of them, as deep fissures appeared in President Ali Abdullah Saleh\’s regime.
Saleh, a key ally in the US "war on terror", ordered his security forces to offer "full protection" to his opponents and supporters alike, state media said.
An unemployed 27-year-old man who set himself on fire four days ago died in south Yemen\’s port city of Aden, his relatives and medics told AFP.
Jordan\’s powerful Islamist opposition was also preparing a "day of anger" on Friday to demand reforms, in what they hope will be the largest protest since anti-government demonstrations began in January.
Algeria meanwhile on Thursday lifted its state of emergency after 19 years following unprecedented protests last month that threatened President Abdelaziz Bouteflika\’s decades-old regime.
In Bahrain, top US military officer Mike Mullen arrived as anti-regime protests gathered steam in the kingdom, from where the US Navy\’s Fifth Fleet keeps a watchful eye on Iran and the rest of the Gulf.
Leading Shiite clerics called for more demonstrations on Friday in a day of mourning for seven protesters killed in a crackdown by Bahraini police a week ago, urging protesters again to march en masse to Manama\’s Pearl Square.
The international community sharpened its focus on Libya, with Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanding an end to "continuing brutal and bloody repression".
Obama also telephoned British Prime Minister David Cameron, both promising to "coordinate on possible multilateral measures on Libya". The UN Security Council was to meet anew on Friday.
US officials said no option had been ruled out. Possible measures include an asset freeze for regime figures, travel and visa bans, investment and export restrictions or tough Security Council action.
According to US reports, one option could be a "no fly zone" to protect civilians in Libya, after Kadhafi was said to have unleashed aerial bombing of opposition hotbeds in the east and flown in African mercenaries.
But State Department spokesman Philip Crowley also stressed the extreme sensitivity of the situation.
"Whatever steps that we do take, we want them to be effective. And we certainly don\’t want to take any actions that put either our citizens or the citizens of other countries at risk," he said.
Foreigners told of hellish scenes in Tripoli as they fled the chaos, with countries worldwide sending planes and warships in a desperate bid to evacuate their nationals.
"Libya is descending into hell," Helena Sheehan, 66, said after she arrived in London aboard a specially chartered British rescue flight.
"The airport is like nothing I\’ve ever seen in my whole life. It\’s absolute chaos. There\’s just thousands and thousands of people trying to get out."
The International Organisation for Migration said that more than 30,000 Egyptian and Tunisian migrant workers had fled Libya since Monday and that it was on standby to help tens of thousands more.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that rocketing oil prices amid the instability in Libya posed a "serious threat to the world". London oil prices inched close to $120 on Thursday, a level not seen since mid-2008.
But crude futures retreated in Friday\’s Asian trade, with London Brent down to just under $111 a barrel, after Saudi Arabia reassured oil consumers it would boost production to make up for any production lost in Libya.