In a recently concluded address broadcast on Libyan state radio, Muammar Gaddafi offered a grim warning to residents of Benghazi, the center of the rebellion seeking to topple the Gaddafi regime: “We are coming tonight, and there will be no mercy.”
The past week has seen troops loyal to Gaddafi march closer to Benghazi, Libya’s second city with a population of roughly a million people. They’ve deployed airpower and heavy artillery against a string of towns once held by rebels, reclaiming strategic coastal cities one by one. The death toll is unknown. (The government offensive has also, according to reports, led to the disappearance of four New York Times journalists.) Now, ahead of a pivotal vote in the U.N. Security Council that may place a no-fly zone over Libya and prompt international air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces, the dictator who has ruled for 41 years insists his victory at hand. He demanded Benghazi residents turn on the rebel fighters and chillingly told the city to expect their homes to be searched for “traitors,” house by house, “alley by alley.”
The speech, like all Gaddafi oratory, was suffused with his typical bluster, echoing decades-old anti-colonial rhetoric. In Gaddafi’s address, it was he who was the agent of Benghazi’s “liberation” — this when, for the past few weeks, the entire east of Libya has hailed itself “Free Libya.” As TIME has observed, after the heady, exuberant initial success of the anti-Gadaffi rebellion, the government counteroffensive has been swift and ruthless. The latest town to fall was Ajbadiyah; rebel fighters and residents streamed out of the city on the road to Benghazi, fleeing tank and mortar fire.
But Benghazi — larger, more populous, and the most significant base for the opposition movement — will prove far trickier to capture. Observers expect the rebels to put up a last stand here, and a bloody siege may only spur the slow-moving international community to finally intervene. Not surprisingly, Gaddafi made overtures to Benghazi, describing the city as his “sweetheart,” and cooingly called on his “children” to come back to the fold before things got too out of control. But, if live footage from Benghazi’s main square is to be believed, few in the rebellion’s last stronghold are listening. Standing up to the threat of a brutal final offensive by Gaddafi’s troops, thousands in Benghazi gathered at night and hurled shoes at images of the dictator. Attention now turns to New York, where, in a matter of hours, the international community may have its most significant mandate yet to intervene in the conflict.