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An army unit and militiamen loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi blasted a mosque with antiaircraft missiles and automatic weapons Thursday, targeting protesters who had holed up inside. The attack, which occurred just 30 miles from Tripoli, comes as Qaddafi finds himself increasingly squeezed by antiregime forces and isolated internationally for his brutal attempts to hold on to power.
Protesters inside the mosque “suffered heavy casualties,” though estimates for numbers killed were not available from witnesses, the Associated Press reports.
The attack was reportedly carried out by a legion of mercenaries and Qaddafi's personal security forces. The New York Times describes the mercenary brigade fighting with an increasingly isolated Qaddafi, who may have even been deserted by parts of the Libyan armed forces at this point.
"Distrustful of even his own generals, Colonel Qaddafi has for years quietly built up this ruthless and loyal force. It is made up of special brigades headed by his sons, segments of the military loyal to his native tribe and its allies, and legions of African mercenaries he has helped train and equip. Many are believed to have fought elsewhere, in places like Sudan, but he has now called them back," the New York Times reported.
"Witnesses said on Wednesday that thousands of members of this irregular army were massing on roads to the capital, Tripoli, where one resident described scenes evocative of anarchic Somalia: clusters of heavily armed men in mismatched uniforms clutching machine guns and willing to carry out orders to kill Libyans that other police and military units, and even fighter pilots, have refused."
Despite such reinforcements, Qaddafi has already lost control of much of eastern Libya and rebels today took control of Misrata, Libya's third largest city and only 120 miles from the capital. Qaddafi's frantic, violent efforts to prevent further rebel encroachment on areas still under his control have drawn condemnation from the US, Europe, and the African Union.
France led the European community in calling for European Union sanctions against Qaddafi on Wednesday. In a cabinet meeting, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced: "I call on the foreign ministry to propose to our European Union partners the swift adoption of concrete sanctions so that all those involved in the ongoing violence know that they must assume the consequences of their actions," according to Al Jazeera.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel similarly said her country would be in favor of sanctions and “will exhaust every possibility to exert pressure and influence on Libya” if the regime did not stop perpetrating violence against it citizens, Al Jazeera adds. Meanwhile, the White House has said it is considering a proposal for reimposing sanctions on Libya. Peru became the first country to suspend diplomatic relations with the country.
President Barack Obama yesterday made his first statements on the Libyan violence since last Friday, announcing that he was dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Geneva on Monday to take part in United Nations talks on the violence.
"The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable,” Obama said, according to Reuters, adding that the president did not call for Qaddafi to step down. “These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop."
President Obama has been criticized for waiting to take a strong stand against Qaddafi, but US officials say they were delaying until Americans were safely evacuated from Libya.
State Department officials say the US is considering freezing assets, declaring a no-fly zone over Libya to stop Libyan forces from shooting on protesters, imposing economic sanctions, and providing humanitarian aid – either unilaterally or with international allies, The Christian Science Monitor reported.
In a video report from Nigeria, Al Jazeera adds that the African Union condemned Qaddafi – who has long posited himself as a pan-African leader, promoting a vision of a common army and currency for the continent – for his “disproportionate use of force."
“The images of violence in Libya have appalled Africans across the continent.… Whatever the outcome of this crisis, Qaddafi’s time as an influential figure in Africa has almost certainly closed as well,” Al Jazeera notes.