A Call from the Colonel: Gaddafi and His Bunker

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Loyalist residents of Tripoli position themselves inside the compound of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to make themselves into human shields protecting him from air strikes

The voice on the phone call emerged presumably from the highly fortified bunker in the center of Tripoli. Recorded and then broadcast on Libyan state television, it railed about Hitler and Mussolini and against invaders and devils. For Muammar Gaddafi, it was not a long tirade, but it was intense, a compressed version of his fury against colonialism and the great powers that dared to oppose him. It aired about 10 hours after allied aircraft caused an enormous explosion in the vicinity of Gaddafi's headquarters Bab al-Azizia, an attack that was met with a 10-minute-long barrage of antiaircraft fire from Soviet-era weaponry. All in vain. The counterattack was unable to touch the high-altitude intruders, part of an undetectable armada that had deprived Gaddafi of Libya's sky.

But if his defenses appeared impotent against the allied might, Gaddafi gave no evidence that he was cowed by the many nations arrayed against him, a coalition that had first sent French planes against his forces besieging the rebel city of Benghazi, then more than 100 U.S. and British Tomahawk missiles against his military installations, and more and more into the night and day. In fact, he belittled them. "We defeated Italy when it was a superpower like you," he said, comparing Washington to Rome, Libya's former colonizer. "You will be defeated like Hitler and Mussolini ... You are the new Hitler." He brought up America's defeats in Vietnam and its self-debilitating invasion of Iraq. He raised the image of Osama bin Laden, "that weak man" who he said defeated the U.S. "We will be victorious. You will die."

He claimed to have right on his side, despite the monthlong rebellion that had very quickly deprived him of half his country until loyalist forces marched back against the militarily undisciplined people power of eastern Libya. "We have been wronged," he declared. "Those who have been wronged will always win. There is no justification for this attack. It's a colonial crusade. Islam will win. Libyans will win." "We will not let these Christian nations take our oil ... We are now giving Libyans weapons, machine guns. Every citizen will be armed ... You will not be able to land here ... We will destroy those who support you in Benghazi ... We will defend our own country, inch by inch ... We will be victorious. The coalition of the devil will be defeated." And then the call ended.

The regime claims that, so far, 48 civilians have been killed in the allied air strikes. That appears to have elicited the sympathy of one significant backer of the no-fly zone, Amr Moussa, the Egyptian who heads the Arab League, which expressed support for such a zone on March 12, paving the way for the U.N. resolution last week and the formation of the coalition on Saturday. Moussa, who is expected to run for the Egyptian presidency, told reporters on Sunday that the allied attack on Libya "differs from the no-fly-zone objectives ... What we want is civilians' protection, not shelling more civilians." The coalition insists it has struck only military installations. Russia, which abstained during the U.N. Security Council no-fly-zone vote, has also asked that the air strikes cease.

The official Libyan media has reported that Gaddafi's supporters have formed a human shield around Bab al-Azizia. They appear to be fervently devoted to the Colonel in his bunker. TIME photographer Christopher Morris, who is in Tripoli, tells of a young man at Bab al-Azizia grabbing him by the arm, pleading with Morris to take a picture of the little boy on his shoulder. "Don't you see? Don't you see that we love Gaddafi? I'm bringing my only son, my 2-year-old son, to die here with me for him." Another man that Morris met demonstrated his fealty to Gaddafi by slapping one hand on the opposite forearm, almost the way an addict prepares his veins, screaming, "Muammar is in my blood." But one Western report had the human shield dispersing the moment the allies started dropping bombs in Tripoli.

Morris visited Bab al-Azizia twice on Saturday, on an official tour conducted by the regime. He describes the layers of fortifications that have been created to protect Gaddafi and his family. "It's something straight out of a bad James Bond movie," Morris wrote via e-mail. "After you make it through the first wall, you enter into a very large inner security circle that is probably 50 meters deep." The area is filled with troops, says Morris, and "as you walk along this inner area up against the next wall ... large concrete trailers like bunkers line the complete length of the next wall." The next layer, he says, is mostly made up of concrete single-story housing and offices, "all tightly packed together like a suburban military village. All the way in there is a mix of well-equipped soldiers with bayonet-fixed weapons at the ready." Hanging above them at one point was a medieval-looking contraption made of "metal spikes and razor wire" perhaps meant to drop on "any advancing army or coup plotters" to hinder their attack.

Deep in Bab al-Azizia, Gaddafi himself is believed to be bunkered down. Since the allied intervention began, only his voice has emanated from his fortress, perhaps out of caution that a live television appearance may give clues to his real-time presence and allow some all-detecting allied technology to zero in on him. The invisibility has only led to rumors, including one that the Libyan strongman had tried to kill himself but had failed at suicide. The phone call to state television may have been an attempt to scotch the allegations of suicide. That would be too much like the fate of another dictator in his bunker.

(Citations from Gaddafi's speech are based on translations provided by political commentator Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi on his Twitter account @sultanalqassemi.)