UPDATED  2.23 PM

Gaddafi’s regime is dissolving fast. Several Libyan ambassadors, including in Washington, the UN and India, resigned or declared their allegiance with protesters.

And the Libyan embassy in Canberra has severed ties with the Gaddafi regime after its ambassador’s meeting with Australian government officials.

The embassy’s cultural counsellor Omran Zwed condemned the violence in his homeland, saying: “We represent the Libyan people and no longer the Libyan regime.”

Meanwhile, Libyan Army units — some have already joined the protesters — have called for the overthrow of Gaddafi.

This must have been what the rule of Caligula was like, the terrifying spectacle of a deeply-unhinged man with absolute power. This morning, Australian time, Muammar Gaddafi — reported for several hours to be preparing a speech — finally appeared on Libyan television, clutching an umbrella, declaring it was raining and that he wasn’t in Venezuala. And that was it.

For all that his son Seif yesterday appeared to have consumed plenty of the drugs he accused protesters of using, this was a climactic act of madness from a ruler long known as profoundly eccentric. For Gaddafi’s umbrella act was while those forces still loyal to him — supported by African mercenaries — were engaged in a war on the Libyan people, an attempt at mass slaughter using heavy calibre weapons that have ripped protesters apart (the evidence is readily available online) and air strikes.

This new and even more savage round of slaughter began unfolding yesterday as reports emerged that cars full of African mercenaries had begun shooting protesters in Tripoli. That appeared to have little effect, though, as government buildings were overrun and set alight, and one television station taken off air.

Evidence quickly began emerging via photos and video of the slaughter. There were unconfirmed reports of artillery being used. The slaughter accelerated overnight. Two Libyan Air Force pilots landed in Malta, declaring they had been ordered to bomb Benghazi, which the regime lost control of on the weekend, and refused to do so. Two others landed in Benghazi and said the same.

The death toll is already in the hundreds and likely to grow significantly.

The gulf between what’s happening on the ground, conveyed immediately via Twitter (a Speak-to-Tweet service has been set up to overcome the internet blackout imposed by Gaddafi) and via what phonelines into the country remain, and the diplomatic world grows ever wider.

Western governments have upped their rhetoric from concern and calls for restraint to condemnation of violence, but the impression is still of general disinterest in the mass slaughter being undertaken by Gaddafi.

As with Tunisia and Egypt, Western leaders appear several days behind events, Gaddafi, of course, was once routinely reviled. But in recent years has become something of a favourite, an idiosyncratic leader indulged for his cooperation against Islamic terrorism and illegal immigration to Europe, and of course for his oil.

In Libya, however, it’s clear there’ll be no peaceful resolution as happened in Tunisia and Egypt, no convenient resolution that enables the West to declare itself in favour of the winner of a struggle between democracy and its ageing allies. For generations it has backed dictators and undermined democrats in the Middle East while talking endlessly of human rights and freedom.

Now its inaction as Gaddafi turns on his own people will further strengthen the belief of ordinary Arabs that we only like democracy when it’s convenient for us, and if it doesn’t suit our own interests — from oil, to counter-terrorism, to reflexive support of Israel and illegal immigration- -then we’re not interested.

Libya’s ambassador to the UN, among many other including former British Foreign Secretary Lord Owen, has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to prevent Gaddafi using air strikes against his own people.  But so far Western leaders and their foreign ministers have done nothing but wring their hands.

Peter Fray

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