TRIPOLI — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi appeared for less than a minute Tuesday morning on state television and made brief remarks to say he was in the capital Tripoli and to deny rumors he had fled to Venezuela amid the violent revolt against his 41-year rule.
Gadhafi was seated in the passenger seat of a small vehicle holding an umbrella up through the open door. It had been raining in the capital for two days. His remarks were aired about 2 a.m. local time (7 p.m. Monday ET).
"I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Don't believe those misleading dog stations," he said, referring to media reports that he had left the country.
He said rain prevented him from addressing massed protesters.
Gadhafi spoke hours after reports that Libyan military aircraft fired live ammunition at crowds of anti-government protesters in Tripoli on Monday.
"What we are witnessing today is unimaginable," Adel Mohamed Saleh, an activist in the capital, told Al Jazeera television. His accounts could not be independently confirmed. "Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead.
"Our people are dying. It is the policy of scorched earth," he said.
Another man, identified only as “Victory,” told msnbc.com after touring Tripoli, “We could hear firing every 15 minutes, I don’t know from where really.”
The accounts came as deep cracks opened in Gadhafi's regime, with diplomats abroad and the justice minister at home resigning, air force pilots defecting and a fire raging at the main government hall after the clashes in the capital Tripoli. Protesters called for another night of defiance in Tripoli's main square despite the government's heavy crackdown.
The International Federation for Human Rights said in a statement Monday that at least 300 to 400 people had been killed since Feb. 15, citing the Libyan League for Human Rights, which is a member of the federation.
"The toll is also likely to rise because of the shortage of medicine which the country is facing," the statement said.
Arabiya television said the Tripoli clashes on Monday alone left 160 dead.
Top stories: Turmoil in the Middle East
One of Gadhafi's sons, Seif al-Islam, has vowed that his father and security forces would fight "until the last bullet."
An analyst for London-based consultancy Control Risks said the use of military aircraft on his own people indicated the end was approaching for Gadhafi.Story: What you need to know about the unrest in the Mideast
"These really seem to be last, desperate acts. If you're bombing your own capital, it's really hard to see how you can survive, " said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Control Risks' Middle East analyst.
"But I think Gadhafi is going to put up a fight ... in Libya more than any other country in the region, there is the prospect of serious violence and outright conflict," he said.
Gadhafi's regime appeared to be preparing a new major assault in the capital Monday night. State TV at nightfall announced that the military had "stormed the hideouts of saboteurs" and called on the public to back the security forces as protesters called for a new demonstration in central Green Square and in front of Gadhafi's Tripoli residence.
Snipers had taken position on the roofs of buildings around Tripoli, apparently to stop people from outside the capital from joining the march, according to Mohammed Abdul-Malek, a London-based opposition activist in touch with residents.
Communications into the capital appeared to have been cut, and mobile phones of residents could not be reached from outside the country. State TV showed images of hundreds of Gadhafi supporters rallying in central Green Square Monday evening, waving pictures of the Libyan leader and palm fronds.
A group of Libyan army officers issued a statement urging fellow soldiers to "join the people" and help remove Gadhafi, Al Jazeera reported on Monday.
Fighter pilots claim asylum
Reuters reported that two Libyan fighter jets flown by Libyan air force colonels were granted permission to land in Malta after asking for political asylum.
They had left from a base near Tripoli and had flown low over Libyan airspace to avoid detection. They arrived shortly after two civilian helicopters carrying seven people claiming to be French landed after a flight from Libya.
Sources said the fighter pilots defected because they would not fire on the Tripoli protesters.
U.K.-based opposition activist Ahmed Sawalem, who is keeping in touch with protesters in Libya, told msnbc.com that there were reports of planes bombing a weapons store south of Benghazi in Ajdabiya "so the protesters cannot get hold of them, to use them to fight." He said a number of people in the area were thought to have been killed in the attack.Video: Violence in Libya, nearing civil war (on this page)
A suggestion that Gadhafi may have fled was fueled when British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had "some information" the dictator was heading for Venezuela.
However, a senior government source in Caracas denied that and a U.K. official said Hague had been referring only to unconfirmed media reports.
Leaders break with Gadhafi
Libya's ambassadors at the United Nations called for Gadhafi to step down as the country's ruler. Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi said Monday that if Gadhafi does not relinquish power, "the Libyan people will get rid of him."
The staff of Libya's mission to the United Nations declared allegiance to the people of Libya, instead of to Gadhafi, a spokesman said Monday.
"The members of the Libyan mission are representing only the Libyan people and not anyone else," the spokesman, Dia al-Hotmani, said by telephone.
Justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil reportedly resigned from his post to protest the "excessive use of force against unarmed protesters."
The Libyan ambassador to the United States also said he could no longer support Gadhafi, and the ambassador to India resigned. Almost all Libyan diplomats at the United Nations backed deputy ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi's pleas to Gadhafi to end his 40-year rule and to the international community to intervene.
A Libyan diplomat in China, Hussein el-Sadek el-Mesrati, told Al-Jazeera, "I resigned from representing the government of Mussolini and Hitler."
Libya's former ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who a day earlier resigned from his post to side with protesters, issued a statement demanding Gadhafi "be put on trial along with his aides, security and military commanders over the mass killings in Libya."
"Gadhafi's regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people," al-Houni said.
The U.N. spokesperson's office said late Monday that the Security Council had scheduled consultations on the situation in Libya for Tuesday morning.
Earlier, Dabbashi had said he was writing to the Security Council calling for action to stop the bloodshed.
As diplomatic support for Gadhafi began to crumble, Dabbashi warned that if he doesn't leave, "the Libyan people will get rid of him."
Celebration in Benghazi
Protesters celebrated in the streets of the country's second largest city, Benghazi, claiming they were in control after days of bloody fighting and after anti-government unrest. Celebrating protesters raised the flag of the country's old monarchy, toppled in 1969 by a Gadhafi-led military coup, over Benghazi's main courthouse and on tanks around the city.
"Gadhafi needs one more push and he is gone," said Amal Roqaqie, a lawyer at the Benghazi court, saying protesters are "imposing a new reality ... Tripoli will be our capital. We are imposing a new order and new state, a civil constitutional and with transitional government."
Cars honked their horns in celebration and protesters in the streets chanted "Long live Libya."
There were fears of chaos as young men — including regime supporters — seized weapons from the Katiba and other captured security buildings. "The youths now have arms and that's worrying," said Iman, a doctor at the main hospital. "We are appealing to the wise men of every neighborhood to rein in the youths."
Youth volunteers were directing traffic and guarding homes and public facilities, said Najla, a lawyer and university lecturer in Benghazi. She and other residents said police had disappeared from the streets.
After seizing the Katiba, protesters found the bodies of 13 uniformed security officers inside who had been handcuffed and shot in the head, then set on fire, said Hassan, also a doctor. He said protesters believed the 13 had been executed by fellow security forces for refusing to attack protesters.
Rage in Tripoli
The capital was largely shut down, with schools, government offices and most stores closed, as armed members of pro-government organizations called "Revolutionary Committees" circulated in the streets hunting for protesters in Tripoli's old city, said one protester, named Fathi.
During the day Monday, a fire was raging at the People's Hall, the main hall for government gatherings where the country's equivalent of a parliament holds its sessions several times a year, the pro-government news web site Qureyna said.
The man identified as "Victory" told msnbc.com that telephone service went down at around 3 p.m. local time.
He said he saw helicopters overhead and a column of six tanks as he traveled through the city in the afternoon. He said for the most part the streets were empty of residents, but he came across security forces with machine guns.
Among the buildings attacked by protesters was the Ministry of Defense headquarters on Omar El Mokhtar Street, which was on fire, he said.
At 7:45 p.m. he said he saw military planes flying near the ground, close enough to see that they were full of passengers.
The man, who spoke to msnbc.com from the home he shares with his parents and four sisters and brothers, denied that the country was in the midst of a civil war.
“The situation on the streets is not a war,” he said. “The people don’t have anything, they use rocks, sometimes knives. We don’t have guns, we don’t have anything to fight them with.”
He said the residents of Tripoli were especially angered and frightened by the presence of what he called African militias brought in to fight protesters.
The last straw for many people was the speech Sunday night by Gadhafi ‘s son.
“The people, they want freedom,” he said. “Maybe 10 years ago, 20 years ago they would have listened. But not now — I don’t think we can accept that anymore … his father is not welcome in Libya anymore.”
The government “has fallen,” he said. “Gadhafi is not good for Libya.” Protesters planned new marches in the central Green Square and at the leader's residence for Monday evening.
Sunday evening, protesters from various parts of the city streamed into Green Square, all but taking over the plaza and surrounding streets in the area between Tripoli's Ottoman-era old city and its Italian-style downtown. That was when the backlash began, with snipers firing down from rooftops and militiamen attacking the crowds, shooting and chasing people down side streets, according to several witnesses and protests.
Gadhafi supporters in pickup trucks and cars raced through the square, shooting automatic weapons. "They were driving like mad men searching for someone to kill. ... It was total chaos, shooting and shouting," said one 28-year-old protester.
The witnesses reported seeing casualties, but the number could not be confirmed. One witness, named Fathi, said he saw at least two he believed were dead and many more wounded. After midnight, protesters took over the main Tripoli offices of two state-run satellite stations, Al-Jamahiriya-1 and Al-Shebabiya, one witness said.
Fight 'to the end'
“The overwhelming sentiment among Libyans is, ‘prepare to see this fight for our freedom to the end,’” Tarik Yousef, dean of the Dubai School of Government and a Libyan-American, told msnbc.com. “This is a 42-year dictatorship of the worst possible kind.”
“I think what happened in Libya is to some extent connected with what happened in Egypt and Tunisia," Yousef said. "There has been a huge contagion effect running across the three countries. The demonstration of the capacity of the public to effect change is a huge factor in what has happened.”
“I think this is an historic moment from the perspective of modern Arab history," Yousef said. "I can’t go back to the modern period and find a moment that resembles this kind of widely expressed people’s power movement that we see at the moment.”
Yousef has family in Benghazi and friends in Tripoli.
“The conditions for disintegration of the regime base are there,” Yousef said, noting the resignations of diplomats, the Libyan mission to the United Nations staff distancing itself from Gadhafi, and even the flying of the Libyan flag of independence at the Libyan Embassy in London.
“All of these are developments that suggest that a lot of the power base of the regime is slowly disintegrating and crumbling.”
“When you have tribes that have access to oil installations within their vicinity and can in fact affect the supply of oil — threaten to use that — that’s another source of weakening of the regime.”
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Gadhafi's regime has unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Gadhafi Monday by telephone, expressing deep concern over the escalating violence and saying it must stop immediately, a statement obtained by NBC News said.
The U.S. State Department ordered all embassy family members and non-emergency personnel in Libya to leave the nation, NBC News reported. It also urged Americans to delay travel to Libya or if already there to use extreme caution.
Violence and looting could continue for several days, it warned.Story: Flamboyant Gadhafi feels wind of change
The White House said on Monday that it was analyzing Seif's speech to see what offers of meaningful reform it contained, NBC News reported.
Seif promised "historic" reforms in Libya if protests stop, and on Monday state TV said he had formed a commission to investigate deaths during the unrest. Protesters ignored the vague gestures.
Officials would seek more information from Libyan officials and reiterate the White House's call for the Libyan government to avoid using violence against those protesting peacefully and respect their rights, NBC added.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting neighboring Egypt, called the Libyan government's crackdown "appalling."
"We can see what is happening in Libya which is completely appalling and unacceptable as the regime is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see that country — which is one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic — make progress. The response they have shown has been quite appalling," he told reporters in Cairo.
The European Union on Monday sharply criticized Libyan authorities. The EU foreign ministers condemned "the ongoing repression against demonstrators in Libya and deplores the violence and death of civilians," said a statement released after the regular monthly meeting of the bloc's 27 foreign ministers.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy said in a separate statement he was "horrified by the growing number of human casualties among demonstrators."Video: Violence rocks Libya as protests take deadly turn (on this page)
Fragmentation is a real danger in Libya, a country of deep tribal divisions and a historic rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi. The system of rule created by Gadhafi — the "Jamahiriya," or "rule by masses" — is highly decentralized, run by "popular committees" in a complicated hierarchy that effectively means there is no real center of decision-making except Gadhafi, his sons and their top aides.
Seif has often been put forward as the regime's face of reform and is often cited as a likely successor to his father. Seif's younger brother Mutassim is the national security adviser, with a strong role in the military and security forces, and another brother Khamis heads the army's 32nd Brigade, which according to U.S. diplomats is the best trained and best equipped force in the military.
Oil price jumps
The spiraling turmoil in Libya, an OPEC country that is a significant oil supplier to Europe, was raising international alarm and pushing oil prices sharply higher.
The oil price jumped $4.13 to $90.13 a barrel in the U.S. market for crude on fear the unrest could disrupt supplies.
Two leading oil companies, Statoil and BP, said they were pulling some employees out of Libya or preparing to do so.
Portugal sent a plane to pick up its citizens and other EU nationals and Turkey sent two ferries to pick up construction workers stranded in the unrest-hit country.
EU foreign ministers were discussing on Monday the possible evacuation of European citizens. Mobs attacked South Korean, Turkish and Serbian construction workers at various sites around the country, officials from each country said.
Benghazi's airport was closed, according to an airport official in Cairo. A Turkish Airlines flight trying to land in Benghazi to evacuate Turkish citizens Monday was turned away, told by ground control to circle over the airport then to return to Istanbul.
Reuters, The Associated Press, NBC News and msnbc.com's Brinley Bruton and Miranda Leitsinger contributed to this report.