CAIRO — Libyan protesters seeking to oust longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi defied a crackdown and took to the streets in five cities Thursday on what activists have dubbed a "day of rage," amid reports at least 20 demonstrators have been killed in clashes with pro-government groups. (Scroll down for live updates.)
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Libyan internal security forces also have arrested at least 14 people. Hundreds of pro-government demonstrators also rallied in the capital, Tripoli, blocking traffic in some areas, witnesses said.
An opposition website and an anti-Gadhafi activist said unrest broke out during marches in four Libyan cities – Beyida, Benghazi, Zentan, Rijban and Darnah. Organizers were using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to call for nationwide demonstrations.
"Today the Libyans broke the barrier or fear, it is a new dawn," said Faiz Jibril, an opposition leader in exile.
Opposition website Libya Al-Youm said four protesters were slain by snipers from the Internal Security Forces in the eastern city of Beyida, which had protests Wednesday and Thursday. It's not clear when the protesters were killed. The website also said there was a demonstration Thursday in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, and that security forces had shot and killed six people with live ammunition.
Switzerland-based Libyan activist Fathi al-Warfali said 11 protesters were killed in Beyida on Wednesday night, and scores were wounded. He said the government dispatched army commandos to quell the uprising.
Libya Al-Youm said that protesters set out Thursday after the funeral for those killed a day earlier toward the State Security building, chanting "Free Libya, Gadhafi get out!"
Mohammed Ali Abdellah, deputy leader of the exiled National Front for the Salvation of Libya, said that hospitals in Beyida were complaining of a shortage in medical supplies, and that the government has refused to provide them to treat an increasing number of protesters.
Abdellah quoted hospital officials in the town as saying that about 70 people have been admitted since Wednesday night, about half of them critically injured by gunshot wounds.
Gadhafi's government has moved quickly to try to stop Libyans from joining the wave of uprisings in the Middle East that have ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. It has proposed the doubling of government employees' salaries and released 110 suspected Islamic militants who oppose him – tactics similar to those adopted by other Arab regimes facing recent mass protests.
An autocrat who has ruled for more than 40 years, Gadhafi also has been meeting with tribal leaders to solicit their support. State television reported Tuesday that Gadhafi spoke with representatives of the Ben Ali tribe, one of Libya's biggest clans and one that has branches into neighboring Egypt.
Tripoli residents said they were having trouble accessing the Internet, although it was not clear whether access had been blocked or the bandwidth reduced. At the height of the protests in Egypt last month, the government shut down the Internet for five days in a bid to curb the protesters' ability to organize.
The official news agency JANA said Thursday's pro-government rallies were intended to express "eternal unity with the brother leader of the revolution," as Gadhafi is known.
Witnesses in the capital said many government supporters were raising Libyan flags from their cars and chanting slogans in favor of Gadhafi. They said it was otherwise business as usual in the capital and stores remained open.
But protests already have turned violent.
Al-Warfali, head of the Libyan Committee for Truth and Justice, said two more people were killed in another city, Zentan, on Thursday while one protester was killed in Rijban, a town about 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, where power was shut down Wednesday night and remained off Thursday.
A video provided by al-Warfali of the scene in Zentan showed marchers chanting and holding a banner that read "Down with Gadhafi. Down with the regime."
He said protesters on Thursday in the coastal city of Darnah were chanting "the people want the ouster of the regime" – a popular slogan from protests in Tunisia and Egypt – when thugs and police attacked them from a vegetable market.
Another video showed protests by lawyers in Benghazi on Thursday demanding political and economic reform while a third depicted a demonstration in Shahat, a small town southwest of Benghazi.
The Libyan government maintains tight control over the media and the reports couldn't be independently confirmed.
Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition group in that country as it has been in Egypt, denounced the crackdown.
In a statement Wednesday night, it accused "the security forces and members of the revolutionary committees of using live ammunition in dispersing the protesters." The group demanded that "the Libyan regime rein in its (security) apparatus."
Follow the latest developments in the Middle East and North Africa below.
03/11/2011 6:31 PM EST
U.S. Extends Sanctions On Libya
Reports the AP:
The Obama administration extended its Libya sanctions to more Gadhafi family members and close advisers on Thursday, blacklisting business with the Libyan leader's wife, four of his children and his chief of military intelligence.
The Treasury Department froze the assets of nine Libyans in all as part of the strategy to peel off Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers while punishing those who remain loyal to the regime even as it commits human rights violations.
The sanctions come on top of those previously announced by the administration, which accounted for $32 billion in Libyan government assets blocked in the United States.
03/11/2011 5:33 PM EST
Sarkozy Calls For Air Strikes If Gaddafi Attacks Civilians
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for airstrikes against Gaddafi forces if the leader attacks civilians. According to the Guardian:
Nicolas Sarkozy has called for targeted air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime if his forces use chemical weapons or launch air strikes against civilians.
As the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, warned that a no-fly zone could risk civilian lives in Libya, the French president told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes may soon be justified.
"The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters," Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".
03/11/2011 5:06 PM EST
Dutch Helicopter Crew Freed
A Dutch helicopter crew taken captive in Libya has been freed and sent to Greece. The BBC is reporting:
The two men and one woman arrived in Athens on a Greek military transport plane hours after a son of Muammar Gaddafi announced their release.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said Libya would hold on to the crew's Lynx helicopter.
The woman pilot, Yvonne Niersman, took part in a mission last year to free a German ship from Somali pirates.
Ms Niersman and her fellow crew members were captured in Libya after flying in from the Dutch warship Tromp, anchored off the coast.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 4:43 PM EST
McCain Praises Moroccan King
Senator John McCain praised Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his pledge to introduce democratic reforms. According to the AFP:
"This new reform agenda builds on the king's long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain.
03/11/2011 3:40 PM EST
Gaddafi Offers Amnesty To Rebels
Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi is now offering to offer amnesty to those rebels who lay own arms.
03/11/2011 3:28 PM EST
2 Protesters Killed In Tunisia
The AP reports:
Tunisia's Interior Ministry says a new eruption of violence between police and protesters has killed two people and injured 20.
The ministry says on its Facebook page that police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs.
The statement says two protesters were killed in the incident in Metlaoui, a mining town in the center of the Mediterranean country.
The violence comes as Tunisia's interim government is trying to restore stability after deadly protests that drove out longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That prompted uprisings around the Arab world.
03/11/2011 2:39 PM EST
Berlusconi Says Hardline With Gaddafi A Mistake
Berlusconi is saying that the West may have made a mistake by taking a hardline against Gaddafi, which may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner. Reports Reuters:
The hardline stance taken by major powers against Muammar Gaddafi may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner and prevented a quiet exit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday. Speaking after a special meeting of EU leaders, Berlusconi, one of Gaddafi's closest friends in Europe until the current upheaval, said the chances of persuading him to give up power voluntarily now appeared to have disappeared.
"Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don't think anyone can make him change his mind," he told reporters.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 2:16 PM EST
Who Are The Libyan Rebels?
The AP is reporting that the rebels fighting Gaddafi forces are amateurs, but deeply committed to the cause:
Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country's Mediterranean coast.
"I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar," said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.
The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.
Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.
03/11/2011 1:03 PM EST
Gaddafi Forces Show Signs Of Victory
Reports the AP:
Moammar Gadhafi's regime has gained momentum with the capture of a key city near Tripoli after days of fierce fighting with rebels.
The battle for Zawiya has emerged as a key test in the government's ability to maintain its hold on the Libyan capital and surrounding areas.
The government had claimed victory on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was escorted with other journalists into the city on Friday, says the main square that had been the center of resistance is clearly in government control.
03/11/2011 12:47 PM EST
Obama On Libya
Obama noted all of the sanctions and property seizures that have already been implemented against Gaddafi, saying, "Across the board, we are tightening the noose on Gaddafi." He says that NATO is discussing potential military actions in Libya, including a no-fly zone, and will meet on Tuesday. He said that a position will be created for a liaison to speak with Libyan opposition groups. He said that the international community had moved quickly to isolate Gaddafi.
Obama said that no options have been taken off the table so far. In response to a question about whether it would ever be acceptable to the U.S. for Gaddafi to stay in power, Obama stated that "it is in the U.S.' interest and the interest of the Libyan people for Gaddafi to leave." He added, however, that when making a decision to engage militarily, he would weigh the "costs and benefits."