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Stalwarts quit as Gaddafi set for battle

TRIPOLI, Feb 26 – An increasingly embattled Muammar Gaddafi said he would throw open Libya\’s arsenals to his supporters in a rabble-rousing speech on Friday that presaged a bloody battle for the capital.

In a brief but chilling address in Tripoli\’s Green Square, Gaddafi told hundreds of cheering supporters to prepare themselves for a fight to defend the city.

Libya\’s envoy to the United Nations, Mohammed Shalgham, a childhood friend of Gaddafi, became the latest official to abandon him, with a diplomat saying he had joined his deputy Ibrahim Dabbashi in defecting.

"Please, the United Nations, save Libya. Let there be no bloodshed, no killing of innocents. We want a decisive, rapid and courageous resolution from you," Shalgham told the Security Council.

Gaddafi loyalists had earlier killed several people in shootings that spread through Tripoli, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first world leader to openly demand his ouster.

As outraged Western governments scrambled to craft a collective response to a bloody crackdown which has claimed hundreds of lives, the United States said it was moving ahead with sanctions against the regime.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order, seizing assets and blocking any property in the United States belonging to Gaddafi or his four sons.

In a statement, Obama said the measures were specifically targeted against the Gaddafi government and not the wealth of the Libyan people themselves.

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The European Union agreed to slap an arms embargo, asset freezes and travel bans on Libya.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Friday demanded decisive action by the Security Council against Gaddafi\’s bloody crackdown, warning that any delay would add to the growing death toll which he said now came to over 1,000.

Ban\’s call and an emotional speech by the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations – in which he raised the spectre of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot -jolted the council into ordering a special meeting on Saturday to consider a sanctions resolution against Gaddafi.

Britain, France, Germany and the United States have drawn up a resolution which says the attacks on civilians could amount to crimes against humanity. It calls for an arms embargo and a travel ban and assets freeze against Gaddafi and his entourage.

Intense negotiations are expected, however, as some other countries raised reservations about some of the measures.

In a rooftop address on Friday, Gaddafi urged his partisans in the square below to "defend Libya." "If needs be, we will open all the arsenals.

"We will fight them and we will beat them," he said as frenzied supporters raised his portrait and waved the country\’s green flag.

Almost the entire east of the oil-rich North African nation has slipped from Gaddafi\’s control since a popular uprising began with protests in the port city of Benghazi on February 15, inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

Hundreds of people have been killed in a brutal crackdown, and tens of thousands of foreigners have scrambled to leave the country.

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State television showed the 68-year-old leader repeatedly raising his arms and shaking his fists during the brief appearance while shouting that the Libyan people "love Gaddafi."

"Life without dignity has no value, life without green flags has no value," he told them. "Sing, dance and prepare yourselves."

It was Gaddafi\’s third public statement this week. Previously, he called on his followers to crush the insurrection and later said Al-Qaeda was behind "drug-crazed mobs" of young people trying to unseat him.

In Ankara meanwhile, Sarkozy said "Mr Gaddafi must go," becoming the first world leader to demand the ouster of the former army colonel who seized power in a 1969 coup.

"The systematic violence against the Libyan people is unacceptable and will be the subject of investigations and sanctions," he said at a joint news conference with Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul.

In Tripoli, security forces opened fire indiscriminately on worshippers leaving prayers, desperate to prevent new protests on the weekly Muslim day of rest, residents told AFP by telephone.

Two people were killed in the Fashlum neighbourhood and several more in Sug al-Jomaa, witnesses said.

Both are eastern suburbs where security forces had opened fire on previous days, but sustained gunfire was also reported in the western district of Ghut Ashaal.

With police and troops deployed in force outside their mosques, prayer leaders followed texts for their sermons that had been imposed by the authorities calling for an end to "sedition," worshippers said.

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The United States withdrew embassy personnel from Tripoli and shuttered its embassy for security reasons, the White House said on Friday. A ferry carrying Americans fleeing Libya docked in the Mediterranean island of Malta.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley earlier said at least 35 American diplomats and their family members were among the evacuees on the ship.

The nation\’s second city Benghazi, where the unprecedented protests against Gaddafi\’s four-decade rule first erupted, remained firmly in the hands of rebels, an AFP correspondent said.

Gaddafi, meanwhile, sought to shore up dwindling support by deploying the country\’s oil wealth. State television said families would be eligible for $400 (290 euros) each and that some public sector workers could get big pay rises.

Dabbashi, the diplomat who has turned against the regime, said a "psychologically unstable" Gaddafi may kill himself rather than be caught by his opponents.

"Gaddafi has the choice between being killed or commit suicide.

"He might seek to send some of his family members abroad but I believe he prefers to die in Libya because of his narcissistic character – he wants to act like a hero," he said.

Western governments faced mounting domestic criticism for their failure to organise evacuations more speedily as oil workers stranded in remote desert camps spoke of supplies being looted amid growing lawlessness.

Crude prices rose again as markets continued to fret about the turmoil in the Middle East, despite a promise from the OPEC oil cartel to make up for any loss of production in Libya.

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