TOBRUK, LIBYA // Colonel Muammar Qaddafi will resort to any means to remain in power, including the destruction of his own country, a general who defected from the Libyan army said Friday.
"Muammar Qaddafi is like Nero, who burnt down Rome. He will burn down his own country," Major Gen Suleiman Mahmoud said in this opposition-held eastern city, where preparations were underway for retaliatory strikes by pro-regime forces as well as a possible march on the capital to unseat the Libyan leader.
The dire warning came as Col Qaddafi appeared late Friday in central Tripoli to rally supporters. Wearing a fur cap and sunglasses and speaking from the ramparts of the Red Castle, a historic fort overlooking Green Square, he told an estimated thousand people that they would "fight and win" in their defence of the country. He also said that, if necessary, weapons depots would be thrown open to arm his people for battle.
"Be prepared to defend Libya" and "Be prepared to defend the oil," he shouted. Pumping his fist in the air, he also urged the crowd to sing and dance.
Col Qaddafi's speech came hours after security forces opened fire on protesters in the Janzour district of the capital.
An unnamed witness told the Reuters news agency that at least five protesters were killed in the incident, a figure which could not be independently verified.
In the first anti-Qaddafi protests in the capital since Tuesday, hundreds of protesters at the Slatnah Mosque in the Janzour district had chanted slogans such as "With our souls, with our blood we protect Benghazi!" the witness said, referring to the eastern regional capital now in control of opposition forces.
Since a popular uprising began with protests in the port city of Benghazi on February 15, it is estimated that hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands of foreigners are now scrambling to leave the country.
In diplomatic developments, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called on Col Qaddafi to resign, the Libyan delegation to the Arab League renounced links to the colonel and Libya's envoy to the United Nations Human Rights Council announced his defection during a special session on the Tripoli government's deadly repression of protesters.
"France's position is clear, Mr Qaddafi must go," the French leader said at a news conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul in Ankara yesterday. Mr Sarkozy, the first leader of a major power to call openly for Col Qaddafi's resignation, said intervention was not a good option.
The Libyan envoy, who asked that his name not be used, denounced his government during the special session in Geneva. "We in the Libyan mission have categorically decided to serve as representatives of the Libyan people and their free will," the diplomat said.
The unrest in North Africa's biggest oil producer has pushed crude prices to a 2 1/2-year high, and led to calls for intervention to stop the worst violence yet seen in two months of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.
France and the United Kingdom were expected to submit a plan for an arms embargo and other sanctions against Libya at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council late Friday.
With Mr Qaddafi's regime showing no signs of backing down, anti-regime forces in this eastern city were making plans for further fighting.
Still wearing his army uniform, Gen Mahmoud yesterday reiterated his support for opponents of the regime, who said they now controlled most of the oil fields east of the town of Ras Lanuf, and said they would honour oil deals as long as they were in the interest of the people.
"I am with you, against Qaddafi" he declared over a loudspeaker yesterday at one of the largest mosques in Tobruk. He also went on local radio to urge reservists and civilians to join rebel forces.
In 1969, Gen Mahmoud was one of the so-called Free Officers, along with Col Qaddafi, who led the coup that overthrew King Idris and ushered in the Libyan Arab Republic.
On February 20, after witnessing the government crackdown against protesters, he threw his support behind the opposition.
In an interview, Gen Mahmoud called the decision to side with the anti-government protesters "difficult."
"I knew that it was a further step towards division in the country. I told my men they were free to do what they wanted. They followed me and now they could be executed."
The former commander of Tobruk's garrison said further fighting was unavoidable.
"What happened in Libya was an earthquake," he said. "Now, we need to call back all the reserve forces in active duty and also the young men of the revoution who know how to use weapons, because they served in the army."
At the main military base in Tobruk, training for a possible march from Benghazi to Tripoli had not yet begun. Instead, young soldiers waved at passengers in cars and chanted, "Freedom for Libya". The soldiers, now regarded by the people of Tobruk as national heroes, were flying the pre-1969 royal flag over their barracks.
Gen Mahmoud said that removing Col Qaddafi from power would be "difficult" due to the great distances involved.