A defiant Moammar Gaddafi has threatened to carry out attacks in Europe against "homes, offices, families," unless Nato halts its campaign of airstrikes against his regime in Libya.
The Libyan leader, sought by the International Criminal Court for a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, delivered the warning in a telephone message played Friday to thousands of supporters gathered in the main square of the capital Tripoli.
It was one of the largest pro-government rallies in recent months, signalling that Gaddafi can still muster significant support. A green cloth, several hundred meters long and held aloft by supporters, snaked above the crowd filling Tripoli's Green Square. Green is Libya's national colour.
A series of powerful explosions later rattled the heart of the capital, apparently new Nato airstrikes, as Gadhafi supporters cheered, honked horns and fired into the air in the street. Black smoke could be seen rising from the area near Gaddafi's Bab Al Aziziya compound.
Gaddafi spoke from an unknown location in a likely sign of concern over his safety. Addressing the West, he warned that Libyans might take revenge for Nato bombings.
"These people (the Libyans) are able to one day take this battle ... to Europe, to target your homes, offices, families, which would become legitimate military targets, like you have targeted our homes," he said.
"We can decide to treat you in a similar way," he said of the Europeans. "If we decide to, we are able to move to Europe like locusts, like bees. We advise you to retreat before you are dealt a disaster."
It was not immediately clear whether Gaddafi could make good on such threats.
In recent years, however, Gadhafi was believed to have severed his ties with extremist groups when he moved to reconcile with Europe and the United States.
A US State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said the US would take Gaddafi's threat of attacks seriously, as his regime carried out such actions in the past. Toner said he did not know if there was intelligence to indicate Gaddafi's regime would be able to carry out such attacks.
"This is an individual who's obviously capable of carrying these kinds of threats, that's what makes him so dangerous, but he's also someone who's given to overblown rhetoric," Toner told a news conference in Washington.
Friday's rally came just four days after the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Gaddafi, his son Seif Al Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah Al Sanoussi for crimes against humanity. International prosecutors allege government troops fired on civilian protesters during anti-Gaddafi street demonstrations earlier this year.
The popular uprising has since turned into a protracted civil war, with anti-government rebels controlling much of eastern Libya and parts of Libya's western mountains. Nato has been bombing government-linked targets since March.
In his speech Friday, Gaddafi denounced the rebels as traitors and blamed them for Libya's troubles.
He said Libyans who fled to neighbouring Tunisia are now "working as maids for the Tunisians." "Tunisians used to work for Libyans. What brought you to this stage? The traitors," he added.
He called on his supporters to march on rebel strongholds, including the western mountain area and the port city of Misrata, both in the otherwise Gadhafi-controlled western Libya. "We must end this battle fast," he said of the attempts to oust him from power, which began with an uprising in mid-February.
Gaddafi's speech signalled that mounting international pressure, including the arrest warrants against him, have made him only more defiant.
His son, Seif Al Islam, who like his father is a wanted man, denied in a TV interview that either of them ordered the killing of civilian protesters in Libya, as prosecutors charge.
The younger Gaddafi told Russian news channel RT in an interview posted online Friday that "most of the people" died when they tried to storm military sites, and that guards fired on them under standing orders to protect the bases and themselves.
However, documents from the International Criminal Court outline multiple instances in which the tribunal prosecutors allege government troops fired on civilian protesters during anti-Gaddafi street demonstrations earlier this year.
The younger Gaddafi had once been viewed as a reformer by the West and was being groomed as a possible successor to his father. Seif Al Islam wore a thick beard and traditional clothes in the interview. He denounced the international court seeking his arrest as controlled by the Nato countries now bombing Libya. "This court is a Mickey Mouse court ... For me to be responsible for killing people, it was a big joke," he told the Russian state-funded network.
The Netherlands-based tribunal on Monday issued arrest warrants against the Libyan leader, his son Seif Al Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah Al Sanoussi. The three are accused of orchestrating the killing, injuring, arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of civilians during the first 12 days of an uprising to topple Moammar Gaddafi from power, and for trying to cover up their alleged crimes.
Presiding Judge Sanji Monageng of Botswana has said that hundreds of civilians were killed, injured or arrested in the crackdown, and there were "reasonable grounds to believe" that Gaddafi and his son were both responsible for their murder and persecution.