TRIPOLI // Protesters opposed to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's rule, reportedly assisted by defecting security forces, have taken control of the country's second largest city, Benghazi, defying a warning by the leader's son and heir apparent that government troops will fight "until the last bullet".
The movement to unseat the elder Mr Qaddafi, 68, the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, also spread to Tripoli for the first time amid unconfirmed reports the regime has hired scores of African mercenaries to fight on its behalf.
Gunfire crackled in the streets of the capital on Sunday night, with clashes erupting in the city's main Green Square. Witnesses reported snipers opening fire on crowds trying to seize the area and supporters of the regime speeding through in vehicles, shooting and running over protesters. The office of two state-run satellite news channels were taken over by protesters, who set other government buildings ablaze before dawn, including the interior ministry and police stations, witnesses said.
The city was shut down yesterday and the streets empty, with schools, government offices and most shops closed. A few bakeries managed to serve residents who had hunkered down in their houses, a lawyer named Rehad told the Associated Press. She spoke on condition she use be identified by her first name only.
By late afternoon, a fire was raging at the People's Hall, the main building for government gatherings where the country's equivalent of a parliament holds its sessions several times a year. The pro-government news web site Qureyna said flames were seen leaping from the building, and that the headquarters of the country's Olympics committee was also on fire.
The violence was the heaviest yet in the capital of two million people, a sign of how unrest was spreading after six days of demonstrations in eastern cities demanding the end of Mr Qaddafi's rule. Libya, which has deep tribal divisions and a historic rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi, has unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region.
The International Federation for Human Rights said between 300 and 400 people have been killed so far in the Libyan uprising.
In Benghazi, protesters were in control of the streets yesterday and swarmed over the main security headquarters, looting weapons, after bloody clashes the night before that killed at least 60 people, according to Hassan, a doctor at the main hospital who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Cars honked their horns in celebration and protesters in the streets chanted "Long live Libya".
Video footage posted on the internet showed that protesters took down the Libyan flag from above Benghazi's main courthouse and raised the flag of the country's former monarchy, which was toppled in 1969 by the military coup that brought Mr Qaddafi to power.
Benghazi's airport was closed, according to an airport official in Cairo. A Turkish Airlines flight trying to land in Benghazi to evacuate Turkish citizens yesterday was turned away after being told by ground control to circle over the airport then to return to Istanbul.
Benghazi has seen a cycle of bloody clashes over the past week, with funerals of slain protesters turning into new protests where more protesters are killed. After funerals on Sunday, protesters fanned out, burning government buildings and police stations and besieging the large compound known as the Katiba, the city's main security headquarters.
Security forces battled back, at times using heavy-caliber machine guns and anti-aircraft guns, according to residents. One witness said she saw bodies torn apart and that makeshift clinics were set up in the streets to treat the wounded.
In some cases, army units reportedly sided with protesters against security forces and pro-Qaddafi militias.
Inside the Katiba compound, protesters found the bodies of 13 uniformed security officers who had been handcuffed and shot in the head, then set on fire, said Hassan, the doctor. He was told by protesters that the 13 had been executed by fellow security forces for refusing to attack protesters, although this could not be confirmed.
The International Federation for Human Rights said Sirte, considered a Qaddafi stronghold, had also fallen to demonstrators after army units defected, but residents in the city said the security forces were still in control there.
Witnesses also said police had fled the city of al Zawiya, which has since sunk into chaos.
Information on the unrest in Libya is difficult to confirm as the internet has been largely shut down in Libya, limiting the ability of journalists to work freely and preventing residents from making international calls from land lines.
Mr Qaddafi's son, Seif al Islam, appeared on state television on Sunday night to warn of civil war in Libya if the protests continue.
"We are not Tunisia and Egypt," said Seif, 38, who holds no formal government post but wields vast influence as his father's heir apparent. "Muammar Qaddafi, our leader, is leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him," he said in the rambling and sometimes confused speech of nearly 40 minutes. "The armed forces are with him. Tens of thousands are heading here to be with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet," he said, promising "historic" reforms if the protests stopped.
Al Araibiya television quoted witnesses as saying they saw four airplanes carrying "African mercenaries" land in Benina International Airport near the city of Benghazi. The report could not be confirmed.
In another sign of the deep divisions emerging within the regime, the privately owned Quryna newspaper reported that the justice minister, Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil, has resigned over "the excessive use of violence against government protesters", although the report could not be independently confirmed. In Cairo, Libya's envoy to the Arab League said he had resigned to "join the revolution".
Tripoli's ambassador to Delhi also quit, as did a lower-level diplomat in Beijing, reported Al Jazeera television. The satellite channel, which has accused Libya's intelligence services yesterday of jamming its broadcasts in the country, also reported that Libya has stopped output at its Nafoora oilfield in the Sirte Basin, the most prolific oil province in North Africa, due to strikes by workers.
In Washington, a White House official said the US president, Barack Obama, is "considering all appropriate actions" regarding Libya.
"We are analysing the speech of Seif al Islam Qaddafi to see what possibilities it contains for meaningful reform," he told Agence France-Presse. "We will seek clarification from senior Libyan officials, as we continue to raise with them the need to avoid violence against peaceful protesters and respect universal rights."
The British prime minister, David Cameron, visiting neighbouring Egypt, called the regime's actions "appalling", while Austria announced it was sending a military plane, based in Malta, to Tripoli to evacuate Austrian and EU nationals. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon ,called for "the non-use of force and respect for basic freedoms".
Two leading oil companies, Statoil and BP, said they were pulling some employees out of Libya or preparing to do so. Portugal sent plane to pick up its citizens and other EU nationals and Turkey sent two ferries to pick up construction workers stranded in the country.
* With files from Agence France Presse, the Associated Press, Reuters