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Opposition Gains Territory in Libya, Violent Crackdown Continues

Updated 2:45 p.m. ET

Updated 12:15 p.m. ET

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi responded to the latest clashes in a phone interview with state television, accusing Osama bin Laden of being complicit in the upheaval throughout the country and saying that the protest movement was comprised of young men who were under the influence of hallucinogens.

“Shame on you, people of Zawiya, control your children,” he said, referring to the city in which an attack on a mosque full of protesters took place. As many as 10 were reported dead, according to a doctor on the scene.

New amateur video purports to show fighting on the streets of Benghazi.

Updated 9 a.m. ET, Feb. 24

Members of Libya's internal security forces in Tobruk Members of Libya’s internal security forces wave their old national flag as they parade in the eastern city of Tobruk on Feb. 24, 2011. Residents of Libya’s dissident-held east, frenzied by a deadly crackdown by Moamer Kadhafi’s crumbling regime, vowed to march on the capital Tripoli as a string of towns famous as World War II battlegrounds fell under their control. (AFP/Getty Images)

As protesters and defecting army units battle across Libya, areas around the capital of Tripoli are becoming increasingly fractured as forces loyal to ruler Moammar Gadhafi are clashing with rebels for control. Anti-government elements already control much of the eastern part of the country; Gadhafi appears to be in control of a shrinking area around Tripoli. It is difficult to get complete information due to restrictions on foreign media.

In Zawiya, 30 miles from Tripoli, the army reportedly launched an attack on a mosque in which demonstrators had hunkered down and, according to witnesses, fired on them with automatic weapons. There were also bloody clashes in the city of Misrata.

Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, Gadhafi’s cousin and aide, defected to Egypt, the latest in a spate of high-level defections by ambassadors and government officials. Gadhaf al-Dam said he left “in protest and to show disagreement” with the violent reprisals against the demonstrators.

The United Nations has floated the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya in response to reports of warplanes firing on civilians. Estimates of casualties range from a few hundred to a thousand, but independent verification of the death toll is not yet available.

Thousands of foreigners have been fleeing the country as the turmoil spreads, clogging airports and crossing Libya’s land borders. The United States, China and some European countries have also sent planes and vessels to evacuate their citizens.

Libyan state television showed men handcuffed and blindfolded, and said the men had been detained for their part in plotting “terrorist” activities within Libya.

As the upheaval grows in the oil-rich North African nation, the price has skyrocketed to more than $100 a barrel. Oil production has slowed as some facilities have shut down. Libya is responsible for an estimated 2% of the world’s oil.

Updated 5:15 p.m. ET

President Obama spoke out on the situation in Libya Wednesday evening as turmoil spread across the country. He addressed the evacuations of U.S. citizens in the country, saying “we are doing everything we can to protect American citizens. That is my highest priority.”

“We strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya. The American people extend our deepest condolences to the families of all who have been killed and injured,” he said, calling the bloodshed and government’s threats “unacceptable.” “This violence must stop,” he added.

“In a volatile situation like this it is imperative that the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice,” said Mr. Obama, referring to the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of violence and similar refrains from European Union, Arab League, African Union, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

“This is not simply a concern of the United States. The entire world is watching,” he said.

“The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region,” he said, refuting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s claim that foreign interference was responsible for the upheaval .

Updated 1:45 p.m. ET

Two military pilots crashed their planes in the desert and parachuted to safety, unwilling to bomb the opposition-held city of Benghazi Wednesday. The incident highlighted the opposition’s grip on much of the eastern half of the country as Gadhafi looks to retain his hold on the western portion of the country and the capital, Tripoli.

Updated 12:45 p.m. ET

Unrest continued to grip Libya Wednesday as gunfire could be heard in the capital, Tripoli, while defecting army units and protesters reportedly held large swaths of the eastern half of the country, including the city of Benghazi. The opposition claimed to have also taken the city of Misrata, in the western half of the country after several days of fighting with government loyalists.

The government of Moammar Gadhafi faces heavy international criticism for its violent crackdown on protests, which is believed to have killed hundreds of people in the past week. Due to restrictions on foreign media, information has come from several sources, including online videos, human rights groups and defectors.

The United Nations Security Council called Tuesday for an end to the violence, while the Arab League has suspended Libya from the organization. A host of foreign governments have also condemned the violence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Gadhafi to “stop this unacceptable bloodshed” and to engage peacefully with protesters.

Gadhafi’s defiant speech Tuesday, in which he blamed the violence on foreign intelligence services and said the youth had been given “hallucination pills,” seemed only to fuel the protesters. He vowed to stay in Libya and “be a martyr until the end.”

The defection of several key government officials, including Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi and Ali Adjali, Libya’s ambassador in Washington, added uncertainty to the stability of his regime. Gadhafi has been in power since 1969.

Oil prices are approaching $100 a barrel amid the turmoil. Libya is home to the largest reserves of oil in Africa.

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