Defiant Libya leader promises to wage long war as officials in Tripoli say 64 people died in coalition air strikes

© Mohamed Messara/EPA
Libyans loyal to Muammar Gaddafi shout slogans during the funeral of people who, according to authorities, died after air strikes.
Muammar Gaddafi has pledged to arm the Libyan people to resist what he called a "crusader colonialist" onslaught after UN-mandated forces used missiles and bombs to destroy the country's air defences and, according to Tripoli, killed up to 64 people it called "martyrs" to foreign aggression.

Gaddafi, defiant from the moment the attacks began on Saturday night, said Libyans had the patience to wage a "long war" against a coalition that includes Britain, France, the US, Italy and Arab states.

"We will fight if you continue your attacks on us," he vowed in a radio address. "It is now necessary to open the arsenals and arm all the masses with all types of weapons to defend the independence, unity and honor of Libya."

Explosions and anti-aircraft fire were heard again shortly after darkness fell over Tripoli, though there were no air-raid sirens. Traffic continued to move normally and there was little sign of panic.

The second wave of attacks, mainly from American fighters and bombers, last night targeted Libyan ground forces and air defenses, following Saturday's opening barrage of sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. US defense secretary Robert Gates said the US expects to turn control of the mission over to a coalition probably headed either by the French and British or by Nato "in a matter of days".

The Ministry of Defense said a Trafalgar-class submarine stationed in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast fired Tomahawk missiles at air defense targets.

In Libya health officials said 64 people had died, though state TV earlier reported 48 dead and 150 injured. Casualty figures and damage could not be verified as government minders refused to take journalists to the scenes of the attacks or to hospitals, including one reported to have been hit. An earlier claim that a French Mirage jet had been downed was unconfirmed.

The war came to Tripoli at 2.30am yesterday - heralded by the unmistakable crump-crump of anti-aircraft batteries firing at an unseen plane somewhere near Gaddafi's headquarters in his heavily guarded Bab al-Azizya barracks.

Residents had gone to bed expecting trouble after a series of explosions to the east, probably at a radar station in nearby Tajoura. It was there, according to her distraught uncle, Muhammad Salem, that three-month-old Siam al-Tabib was killed and her mother injured, though whether by a bomb or a rocket he did not know.

Her remains were buried under a pitifully small concrete mound covered with three carnations and a scrap of green cloth at the beach cemetery at Shatt al-Hinshir. The bleak spot was packed with hundreds chanting "there is no God but Allah" and "Allah loves martyrs" as Kalashnikov bursts were repeatedly fired over the heads of the mourners and foreign media representatives bussed in to record the scene.

"These were ordinary people, asleep in their homes, not soldiers," one man shouted. "Where is democracy when they are killing children?" cried another, gesturing at the infant's fresh grave. "The people who did this are the terrorists, shedding the blood of innocent Muslims."

Other funerals took place later, several broadcast live on TV to the accompaniment of angry speeches, but it was not possible to distinguish between civilian and military casualties - a highly sensitive issue in the light of concerns expressed by Russia and the Arab League. Libyan opposition sources have accused the regime of moving the dead and injured from one place to another.

"Cameron, your prime minister, has to understand what he has done," warned a lawyer named Ashraf. "It is the traitors in Benghazi, who only want power for themselves, who are responsible for this."

The start of the war was shocking, but neither awesome in its impact nor really surprising - and the regime seemed ready for it, the official media immediately denouncing a dastardly plan to occupy and plunder Libya and its oil wealth.

Officials in Tripoli had been expecting the worst since Thursday when the UN security council voted to use "all necessary means" to protect civilians, in Benghazi, Misrata and elsewhere, from the onslaught by the regime. More ordinary people - some likely to be civilians - will now pay the price. Virtually everything else about this story is deeply uncertain.

"No one knows how this will end," said a worried taxi driver, negotiating the eerily empty streets. "But this is an internal Libyan problem. The French and British should understand that. People are afraid of these cruise missiles."

The capital was quiet but tense in the hours after the first attacks as soldiers and militiamen manned roadblocks to check vehicles and identity cards, stopping traffic approaching Mitiga airport.

Gaddafi's determination to resist was delivered in 15 minutes of his gruff, repetitive growl in comments broadcast on al-Jamahirya TV against a backdrop commemorating the US bombing in 1986. As always, the "brother leader of the revolution" set the tone for others to follow.

Musa Ibrahim, the urbane foreign ministry spokesman, told journalists: "We will not let Libya be lost like Palestine, Iraq or Somalia. We are arming the people. If western countries come to Libya they will have to fight house by house. If Libya goes down, Europe goes down. If we are attacked we will fight to the death. Every man and woman. If Libyans fight to the last drop of blood you can't expect the Mediterranean to be safe. There will be illegal immigration. Al-Qaida may take over parts of Libya. They will come from Algeria and Mali."

But warning of calamitous consequences and vowing revenge may not be enough. The attacks are certain to be followed by others - presumably until Libya's air defenses are out of action. Raids on tanks and other military vehicles are likely to inhibit the ability of the regime's armed forces to fight in Benghazi or elsewhere.

Libya's strength may well lie in its ability to wage a people's war, drawing on a powerful narrative of resistance to foreign enemies. The most popular and resonant slogan of this crisis is Gaddafi's determination to fight "street by street, alley by alley, house by house". If he does, it will show up the limits of the "crusader" coalition's air power and raise difficult questions about whether action on the ground can be avoided if he is to be defeated.

Propaganda, deception and tactical shifts are all weapons in Gaddafi's armoury. Last week's sudden acceptance of a ceasefire was clearly designed to buy time and sow doubts about the wisdom of military action. "If you play dirty, we'll play dirty too," said one senior Libyan.

Nor is there any sign that Gaddafi's loyal supporters are preparing to abandon him. "Without Gaddafi," said a mourner, "Libya will be like Somalia. There will be chaos. This is not like Iraq or Afghanistan, where someone else will take power. We don't have a Maliki or a Karzai here."