TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's unrest spread to the capital Tripoli on Sunday after scores of protesters were killed in the second city Benghazi, which appeared to have slipped out of control of forces loyal to strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi has attempted to put down protests with a violent crackdown, triggering some of the worst bloodshed in the two months since unrest began sweeping across the Arab world.
In the first sign of serious unrest in the capital, thousands of protesters clashed with supporters of Gadaffi in Tripoli. Gunfire could be heard and police using tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.
In Benghazi, center of Libya's unrest, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and appeared to be in control of the city before security forces opened fire and killed scores.
Benghazi residents said soldiers from a unit had joined their protest and defeated a force Gaddafi's elite guards. Bodies were brought to a hospital riddled with bullets and wounds from rocket-propelled grenades.
A witness in Tripoli said police in the capital were using tear gas against protesters, some of whom were throwing stones at billboards of Gaddafi.
A resident of the capital told Reuters by telephone he could hear gunshots in the streets. "We're inside the house and the lights are out. There are gunshots in the street," he said. "That's what I hear, gunshots and people. I can't go outside."
An expatriate worker said protesters were being dispersed by police and he could see burning cars in the capital.
The spread of unrest to Tripoli is a major development as protests so far, the biggest of Gaddafi's rule, were mostly confined to the east of the country where his grip is weaker.
One of Gaddafi's sons, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, appeared on television delivering a rambling address in which he repeatedly said Libya was "not Egypt or Tunisia," neighboring countries whose strongmen were swept from power in recent weeks.
Wagging a finger at the camera, he blamed Libyan exiles for fomenting the violence, promised dialogue on the Libyan constitution and warned of bloodshed if the situation slipped further out of control.
In Benghazi, Habib al-Obaidi, head of the intensive care unit at the main Al-Jalae hospital, said the bodies of 50 people, mostly killed by gunshots, were brought there on Sunday afternoon. The deaths came after scores were killed on Saturday.
Two hundred wounded people had arrived, 100 of them in serious condition, he said.
"The problem is not the number of those killed but how they were killed. One of the victims was obliterated after being hit by an RPG to the abdomen," he said.
Members of an army unit known as the "Thunderbolt" squad had come to the hospital carrying wounded comrades, he said. The soldiers said they had defected to the cause of the protesters and had fought and defeated Gaddafi's elite guards.
"They are now saying that they have overpowered the Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people's revolt," another man at the hospital who heard the soldiers, lawyer Mohamed al-Mana, told Reuters by telephone.
Human Rights Watch said the death toll had reached 233 killed in five days of violence.
In a rare sign of dissent, Libya's representative to the Arab League quit in protest over "oppression against protesters," Al Jazeera television reported.
The leader of the Al-Zuwayya tribe in eastern Libya, Shaikh Faraj al Zuway, threatened to cut oil exports to Western countries within 24 hours unless authorities stopped what he called the "oppression of protesters."
Akram Al-Warfalli, a leading figure in the Al Warfalla tribe, one of Libya's biggest, told Al Jazeera: "We tell the brother (Gaddafi), well he's no longer a brother, we tell him to leave the country."
Libya is a major energy producer with significant investment from Britain's BP Plc, Exxon of the United States and Italy's ENI among others.
Communications are tightly controlled and Benghazi is not accessible to international journalists, but the picture that has emerged is of a city slipping from the grasp of security forces in the biggest challenge to Gaddafi's rule since the "brotherly leader" seized power in a 1969 military coup.
Sunday's violence took place after residents took to the streets in their thousands to bury scores of dead killed in the previous 24 hours. The United States said it was "gravely concerned" by what it called credible reports hundreds of people had been injured or killed.
A leading tribal figure in the city who requested anonymity said security forces had been venturing out of their barracks and shooting protesters in the street. Clashes were taking place on a road leading to a cemetery where thousands had gone to bury the dead. Buildings were on fire, he said.
One witness said thousands of people had performed prayers in front of 60 bodies laid out in Benghazi in the morning. Women and children were among hundreds of thousands that came out onto the Mediterranean seafront and the area surrounding the port.
Copyright 2010 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.
Follow the latest updates on the protests in the Middle East and 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."