Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi signaled his defiance in the face of a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule on Tuesday, making a brief appearance on state television and denying he had fled the country.
His forces have cracked down fiercely on anti-government demonstrators, with fighting now spreading to the capital Tripoli after erupting in Libya’s oil-producing east last week.
In his first appearance on television since the revolt broke out, Gaddafi was shown holding an umbrella in a 22-second statement. He denied reports that he had fled to Venezuela, ruled by his friend President Hugo Chavez.
“I want to show that I’m in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs,” said Gaddafi, leaning out of a van in front of his house.
“I wanted to say something to the youths at Green Square (in Tripoli) and stay up late with them but it started raining. Thank God, it’s a good thing,” added Gaddafi, who took power in a military coup in 1969 when he toppled King Idriss.
Security forces have killed dozens of protesters across the vast, thinly populated nation stretching from the Mediterranean deep into the Sahara desert, human rights groups and witnesses said, prompting widespread condemnation from world leaders.
Demonstrations spread to Tripoli after several cities in the east — including Benghazi where the protests had first erupted — appeared to fall to the opposition, according to residents.
Cracks were beginning to appear among Gaddafi’s supporters, with a group of army officers calling on soldiers to “join the people” and two senior fighter pilots defecting to nearby Malta.
The U.N. Security Council will hold a closed-door meeting on Tuesday to discuss the crisis, diplomats said.
Tripoli, a Mediterranean coastal city, appeared calm in the early hours of Tuesday. “There is heavy rain at the moment, so people are at home,” one resident said. “I am in the east of the city and have not heard clashes.”
Residents had earlier reported gunfire in parts of Tripoli and one political activist said warplanes had bombed the city.
“What we are witnessing today is unimaginable. Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead,” Adel Mohamed Saleh said in a live broadcast on al Jazeera television.
Residents said queues of anxious shoppers trying to stock up on food and drink had formed outside stores. Some shops were closed.
Oil prices have soared on worries over instability in the OPEC member. Ninety percent of Libya’s oil exports come from the eastern region of Cyrenaica, epicenter of the revolt.
International Energy Agency (IEA) chief economist Fatih Birol said on Tuesday that oil prices were in the danger zone and could rise higher if turmoil persisted in the Middle East.
Upheavals which deposed the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have shaken the Arab world and inspired protests across the Middle East and North Africa, threatening the grip of long-entrenched autocratic leaders.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said at least 233 people had been killed in five days of violence in Libya. Opposition groups put the figure much higher. No independent verification was available and communications from outside was difficult.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was “time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed.” EU foreign ministers condemned the killing of protesters and pledged to support democratic transition resulting from the unrest.
U.N. diplomats said the closed-door meeting had been requested by Libyan deputy ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi and would start at 9 a.m. EST (11 a.m. ET).
Dabbashi and other diplomats at Libya’s mission to the United Nations announced on Monday they had sided with protesters and were calling for Gaddafi’s overthrow.
Earlier, a group of army officers issued a statement urging fellow soldiers to “join the people” and help remove Gaddafi, Al Arabiya television said. The justice minister has also resigned in protest at the use of force.
Two Libyan fighter jets landed in Malta, their pilots defecting after they said they had been ordered to bomb protesters, Maltese government officials said.
Libyan guards have withdrawn from their side of the border with Egypt and people’s committees were now in control of the crossing, the Egyptian army said, without making it clear if the groups now in control of the border were loyal to Gaddafi.
A flamboyant figure with his flowing robes and a penchant for female bodyguards, Gaddafi is one of the most recognizable figures on the world stage.
The West has accused him of links to terrorism and revolutionary movements. U.S. President Ronald Reagan once called him a “mad dog” and sent planes to bomb Libya in 1986.
Gaddafi was particularly reviled after the 1988 Pan Am airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, by Libyan agents in which 270 people were killed.