Middle East crisis: Libyan protests move closer to Tripoli
Demonstrators opposed to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya took large parts of the country's second city Benghazi and were reported to be fighting ever closer to the capital Tripoli last night.
Thousands of Britons began an evacuation from the country as Benghazi was described as a "war zone" by senior figures in the regime.
Hundreds of people died over the weekend as forces loyal to Col Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya for 42 years, used high-velocity sniper rifles, machine guns and even anti-aircraft artillery to fire on protesters.
Estimates of the dead varied widely, from 173 by Human Rights Watch, to more than 300.
“Benghazi is a war zone — the situation is very tense,” said a highly placed source in Tripoli. “Troops including mercenaries are being sent there by plane. The fighting is intensifying.
“Lots of people are being killed, including members of the security forces. The figures are certainly above 200, with many thousands more injured.”
Benghazi is 600 miles east of Tripoli, and has always been more hostile to Col Gaddafi than other parts of the country. Fighting has also broken out in the eastern cities of Al-Bayda, Ajdabiya, Darnah, and Tobruk, with eyewitnesses reporting Molotov cocktails, rifles and even antique sabres being used by demonstrators.
In Darnah, a group of Islamists seized an arms depot, and were holding civilians and soldiers hostage.
Protesters in Ajdabiya claimed that it was a “Free City” after the headquarters of the “revolutionary committee” through which the regime ruled the area, were burned down on Friday. There were also reports of clashes in the town of Misrata, 120 miles east of Tripoli. The breakdown of the regime’s authority in Benghazi, where the armed forces were reported to have retreated to a command centre and to be firing indiscriminately, was clear from videos posted on the internet.
One showed a body in blue police fatigues being carried by demonstrators, who can be heard discussing whether he was one of the “African mercenaries” said to have been recruited by Gaddafi.
There were reports that members of a Libyan army unit told residents they had defected and “liberated” the city.
A regional medical coordinator told The Daily Telegraph that bodies were piling up in hospitals.
“Tanks and helicopter gunships full of foreign mercenaries are fighting gangs of demonstrators,” he said. “At least one dead man had been hit by an anti-aircraft missile, while other bodies are riddled with heavy machine gun fire.”
A Libyan journalist claimed that a group of women and children jumped to their deaths from a bridge in Benghazi to escape the mercenaries. “They’re vicious. People are so terrified that they’ve been doing everything possible to get away,” he said. “Women and children were seen jumping off the Giuliana Bridge.”
Libya’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Abdel Moneim al-Honi, announced he was quitting, saying: “I am joining the ranks of the revolution.”
Many of the 3,500 British people living in Libya are preparing to leave. The Foreign Office said 50 in the east were being helped to find “a place of safety”.
Gaddafi has briefly appeared on state television in a pro-government rally, but has otherwise remained silent. His third son, Saadi, was said to be coordinating the forces ranged against the protesters.
“Gaddafi’s fear is that eastern cities will fall, and a full-scale revolt will reach Tripoli,” said Omar, 24, a civil servant.
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