TRIPOLI, Libya – Moammar Gadhafi’s snipers and tanks are terrorizing civilians in the coastal city of Misrata, a resident said, and the U.S. military warned Tuesday it was “considering all options” in response to dire conditions there that have left people cowering in darkened homes and scrounging for food and rainwater.
The U.S. is days away from turning over control of the air assault on Libya to other countries, President Barack Obama said. Just how that will be accomplished remains in dispute: Obama spoke Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in hopes of quickly resolving the squabble over the transition.
“When this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone. It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That’s precisely what the other nations are going to do,” the president said at a news conference in El Salvador as he neared the end of a Latin American trip overshadowed by events in Libya.
Gadhafi, meanwhile, made his first public appearance in a week, promising enthusiastic supporters at his residential compound in Tripoli, “In the short term, we’ll beat them, in the long term, we’ll beat them.”
Libyan state TV broadcast what it said was live coverage of Gadhafi’s less-than-five-minute statement. Standing on a balcony, he denounced the coalition bombing attacks on his forces.
“O great Libyan people, you have to live now, this time of glory, this is a time of glory that we are living,” he said.
State TV said Gadhafi was speaking from his Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound, the same one hit by a cruise missile Sunday night. Reporters were not allowed to enter the compound as he spoke.
Heavy anti-aircraft fire and loud explosions sounded in Tripoli after nightfall, possibly a new attack in the international air campaign that so far has focused on military targets.
One of Gadhafi’s sons may have been killed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News on Tuesday. She cited unconfirmed reports and did not say which son she meant. She said the “evidence is not sufficient” to confirm this.
Clinton also told ABC that people close to Gadhafi are making contact with people abroad to explore options for the future, but she did not say that one of the options might be exile. She said they were asking, “What do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?”
Despite the allies’ efforts to keep Gadhafi from the overwhelming rebel forces trying to end his four-decade rule, conditions have deteriorated sharply in the last major city the rebels hold in western Libya.
Residents of Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, say shelling and sniper attacks are unrelenting. A doctor said tanks opened fire on a peaceful protest Monday.
“The number of dead are too many for our hospital to handle,” said the doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if the city falls to Gadhafi’s troops. As for food, he said, “We share what we find and if we don’t find anything, which happens, we don’t know what to do.”
Neither the rebels nor Gadhafi’s forces are strong enough to hold Misrata or Ajdabiya, a key city in the east that is also a daily battleground. But the airstrikes and missiles that are the weapons of choice for international forces may be of limited use.
“When there’s fighting in urban areas and combatants are mixing and mingling with civilians, the options are vastly reduced,” said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser at Human Rights Watch. “I can imagine the pressures and desires to protect civilians in Misrata and Ajdabiya are bumping up against the concerns about causing harms to the civilians you seek to protect.”
It is all but impossible to verify accounts within the two cities, which have limited communications and are now blocked to rights monitors such as the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Most of eastern Libya is in rebel hands but the force – with more enthusiasm than discipline – has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Gadhafi’s air defenses and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat.
The coalition includes the U.S., Canada, several European countries and Qatar. Qatar was expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission.