Emerging reports early Feb. 21 indicate the unrest in Libya is spreading from eastern Libya to the capital of Tripoli. According to initial reports, heavy gunfire was heard in central Tripoli and in other districts with Al Jazeera reporting 61 people killed in Tripoli on Feb. 21. Other unconfirmed reports say that protesters attacked the headquarters of Al-Jamahiriya Two television and Al-Shababia as well as other government buildings in Tripoli overnight. According to Saudi-owned al-Arabiya, the government-owned People’s Conference Centre where the General People’s Congress (parliament) meets when it is in session in Tripoli was set on fire. U.K. energy firm British Petroleum reportedly said it would evacuate its personnel from Libya and suspend its activities due to massive unrest. Spain’s Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez said on Feb. 21 that the EU member states are coordinating possible evacuations of European nationals from Libya. A Turkish Airlines flight was arranged to evacuate Turkish citizens from Benghazi but was denied the opportunity to land by Libyan authorities and returned to Turkey.
Details are sketchy as to the number of protesters and severity of the clashes in Tripoli. Clashes have been going on between the protesters and security forces in mostly eastern cities of the country and in Benghazi in particular, where opposition against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is concentrated. Signs of protests spreading to Tripoli emerged late Feb. 20 and apparently intensified following a speech made by Ghaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam. In that speech, Seif al-Islam was attempting to present himself as the new and untarnished face of the regime, reiterating the political, social and economic reforms that he has long advocated were needed to hold Libya’s tribal society together. Though in his speech Seif al-Islam carefully distanced himself from old-regime tactics, protesters in Tripoli reportedly rejected the young Libyan leader and began chanting slogans against Seif al-Islam’s address.
Critically, Seif al-Islam implied in his speech that he had the the approval of his father and elements within the military, and that the army and national guard would be relied on to crack down on “seditious elements” spreading unrest. However, unconfirmed reports of army defections in Benghazi and Baida in eastern Libya from Feb. 20 and now spreading unrest to Tripoli Feb. 21 is casting some doubt on the regime’s ability to count on the full loyalty and ability of the army to contain the situation.