Libyans rage: Tripoli burning

Tripoli - Angry Libyan protesters attacked the state broadcaster and set government buildings ablaze on Monday as the son of leader Muammar Gaddafi warned the country faces civil war and "rivers of blood".

With gunfire crackling in the streets of Tripoli, and Human Rights Watch putting the death toll at 233 since Thursday, Saif al-Islam Kadhafi vaguely promised reforms as he condemned the revolt as a foreign plot.

The elder and famously mercurial Gaddafi, 68, the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, remained out of sight as a human rights group said several cities were in the hands of the protesters, including Sirte where he has long received foreign visitors.

"Libya is at a crossroads. If we do not agree today on reforms... rivers of blood will run through Libya," he said in a fiery but rambling televised speech that betrayed a note of desperation within his father's 41-year regime.

"We will take up arms... we will fight to the last bullet. We will destroy seditious elements. If everybody is armed, it is civil war, we will kill each other... Libya is not Egypt, it is not Tunisia."

Within hours of the statement, protesters in the capital Tripoli attacked state broadcast offices and set branches of the People's Committees that are the mainstay of the regime ablaze overnight, witnesses told AFP on Monday.

"The headquarters of Al-Jamahiriya Two television and Al-Shababia radio have been sacked," one witness said by telephone on condition of anonymity.

Torched public buildings

Broadcasts on both channels were interrupted on Sunday evening but resumed on Monday morning.

A number of witnesses said protesters had torched public buildings in the capital overnight, including the interior ministry, People's Committee offices and also police stations.

"Protesters burned and ransacked the ministry of interior building," in central Tripoli, one witness told AFP by email.

Earlier, heavy gunfire erupted in central Tripoli and several city areas for the first time since the uprising began in eastern Libya, witnesses and an AFP journalist reported.

"When we heard the unrest was approaching, we stocked up on flour and tomatoes. It's definitely the end of the regime. This has never happened in Libya before. We are praying that it ends quickly," the resident of a suburb east of Tripoli told AFP in Cairo by telephone.

"Our neighbour was killed last night," added another Tripoli resident in the centre of the capital. "There is a lot of shooting outside. No one from our family has gone to work today."

Several cities, including Libya's second most populous Benghazi, where the protest movement started, have fallen to demonstrators following the defection of some army units, the International Federation for Human Rights said on Monday.

It put the death toll since the start of the uprising at 300 to 400.

Oil prices hit

Saif al-Islam Kadhafi, 38, who holds no formal government post but wields vast influence as his father's heir apparent, suggested that Benghazi was out of government control.

"At this moment there are tanks being driven by civilians in Benghazi," he said, insisting the uprising was aimed at installing Islamist rule and that it would be ruthlessly crushed.

Some 500 Libyans meanwhile stormed and looted a South Korean construction site near the capital, injuring about 15 Bangladeshi as well as three South Korean workers, Seoul's foreign ministry said.

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 who said Gaddafi may have left the country, Al Jazeera television reported.

Oil prices soared on the turmoil, with benchmark Brent North Sea crude for delivery in April surged to $105.08 per barrel, the highest level since late September 2008, before pulling back slightly to $104.53, up $2.01 from Friday's closing level.

New York's main contract, light sweet crude for March, known as West Texas Intermediate, hit as high as $89.50. It later stood at $89.14, up $2.94 from Friday.

British energy giant BP said it was preparing to evacuate some of its staff from Libya, which holds Africa's biggest oil reserves.

Situation appalling

Portugal said it had sent a military plane to Tripoli to begin evacuating Europeans, as Bulgaria and Italy warned their citizens to avoid the strife-torn country.

The United States and the European Union strongly condemned the use of lethal force, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for "the non-use of force and respect for basic freedoms".

British premier David Cameron, on a visit to Cairo, described the situation as "completely appalling and unacceptable," while London summoned Libya's ambassador.

Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi on Monday according to AP, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time.

Muammar Gaddafi's son vowed that his father and security forces would fight "until the last bullet."

Even as Seif al-Islam Gaddafi spoke on state TV Sunday night, clashes were raging in and around Tripoli's central Green Square, lasting until dawn on Monday, witnesses said.

They reported snipers opening fire on crowds trying to seize the square, and Gadhafi supporters speeding through in vehicles, shooting and running over protesters. 

People's Hall burning

During the day on Monday, a fire was raging at the People's Hall, the main hall 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 Olympics Committee was also on fire.

Protesters were calling for a new protest at sunset on Monday in Green Square, setting up the likelihood of new clashes. Already, armed members of pro-government organizations called "Revolutionary Committees" were circulating in the streets hunting for protesters in Tripoli's old city, said one protester, named Fathi.

The city on Monday was shut down, with schools, government offices and most shops closed except a few bakeries serving residents hunkered down in their houses, said a Tripoli lawyer, Rehab, who like Fathi spoke on condition she be identified only by her first name.

The protests and violence were the heaviest yet in the capital of 2 million people, a sign of how unrest was spreading after six days of demonstrations in eastern cities demanding the end of the elder Gaddafi's rule.

Gaddafi's regime has unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting neighboring Egypt, called the Libyan government's crackdown "appalling".

"We can see what is happening in Libya which is completely appalling and unacceptable as the regime is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see that country - which is one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic - make progress. The response they have shown has been quite appalling," he told reporters in Cairo.

Rivers of blood

Seif al-Islam Gaddafi warned of civil war in Libya if protests continue, a theme continued Monday on Libyan state TV, where a pro-regime commentator spoke of chaos and "rivers of blood" turning Libya into "another Somalia" if security is not restored.

Fragmentation is a real danger in Libya, a country of deep tribal divisions and a historic rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi. The Arab world's longest ruling leader in power for nearly 42 years, Muammar Gaddafi has held an unquestioned grip over the highly decentralized system of government he created, called the "Jamahiriya," or "rule by masses".

Libya's former ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who a day earlier resigned from his post to side with protesters, issued a statement demanding Gaddafi "be put on trial along with his aides, security and military commanders over the mass killings in Libya".

"Gaddafi's regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people," al-Houni said.

The spiraling turmoil in Libya, an OPEC country that is a significant oil supplier to Europe, was raising international alarm.

Two leading oil companies, Statoil and BP, said they were pulling some employees out of Libya or preparing to do so. Portugal sent a plane to pick up its citizens and other EU nationals and Turkey sent two ferries to pick up construction workers stranded in the unrest-hit country. EU foreign ministers were discussing on Monday the possible evacuation of European citizens.

The internet has been largely shut down in Libya, residents can no longer make international calls from land lines and journalists cannot work freely, but eyewitness reports trickling out of the country suggested that protesters were fighting back more forcefully. 

In fear

Most witnesses and residents spoke on condition they be identified by first name only or not at all, out of fear of retaliation.

In Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, protesters were in control of the streets on Monday and took over the main security headquarters, known as the Katiba, after bloody clashes on Sunday that killed at least 60 people, according to a doctor at the main hospital.

Cars honked their horns in celebration and protesters in the streets chanted "Long live Libya." Protesters took down the Libyan flag from above Benghazi's main courthouse and raised the flag of the country's old monarchy, which was toppled in 1969 by the military coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power, according to witnesses and video footage posted on the internet.

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 on Monday was turned away, told by ground control to circle over the airport then to return to Istanbul.

There were fears of chaos as young men - including regime supporters - seized weapons from the Katiba and other captured security buildings. "The youths now have arms and that's worrying," said Iman, a doctor at the main hospital.

"We are appealing to the wise men of every neighbourhood to rein in the youths."

Youth volunteers were directing traffic and guarding homes and public facilities, said Najla, a lawyer and university lecturer in Benghazi. She and other residents said police had disappeared from the streets.

Bodies torn apart

Benghazi has seen a cycle of bloody clashes over the past week, as security forces kill protesters, followed by funerals that turn into new protests, sparking new bloody shootings.

After funerals on Sunday, protesters fanned out, burning government buildings and police stations and besieging the Katiba.

Security forces battled back, at times using heavy-calibre 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.

Ahmed Hassan, a doctor at the main Al-Jalaa hospital, said funerals were expected Monday for 20 of those killed the day before, but that families of 40 others were still trying to identify their loved ones because their bodies were too damaged.

In some cases, army units reportedly sided with protesters against security forces and pro-Gadhafi militias. Mohamed Abdul-Rahman, a 42-year-old Benghazi merchant, said he saw an army battalion chasing militiamen from a security compound.

After seizing the Katiba, protesters found the bodies of 13 uniformed security officers inside who had been handcuffed and shot in the head, then set on fire, said Hassan, the doctor. He said protesters believed the 13 had been executed by fellow security forces for refusing to attack protesters.

Protest leaders and army units that sided with them were working to keep order in the streets on Monday, directing traffic and guarding homes and official buildings, several residents said.

Rambling speech

On Sunday night, Gaddafi's son Seif el-Islam took to state TV, trying to take a tough line in a rambling and sometimes confused speech of nearly 40 minutes.

"We are not Tunisia and Egypt," he said. "Muammar Gaddafi, our leader, is leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him."

"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.

He warned the protesters that they risked igniting a civil war in which Libya's oil wealth "will be burned". He also promised "historic" reforms in Libya if protests stop.

Seif has often been put forward as the regime's face of reform. Several of the elder Gaddafi's sons have powerful positions in the regime and in past years have competed for influence.

Seif's younger brother Mutassim is the national security adviser, with a strong role in the military and security forces, and another brother Khamis heads the army's 32nd Brigade, which according to US diplomats is the best trained and best equipped force in the military.

Even as Seif spoke, major clashes had broken out for the first time in Tripoli.

Sunday afternoon, protesters from various parts of the city began to stream toward central Green Square, chanting "God is great," said one 28-year-old man who was among the marchers.

In the square, they found groups of Gadhafi supporters, but the larger number of protesters appeared to be taking over the square and surrounding streets, he and two other witnesses said. That was when the backlash began, with snipers firing down from rooftops and militiamen attacking the crowds, shooting and chasing people down side streets they said.

Gaddafi supporters in pickup trucks and cars raced through the suqare, shooting automatic weapons. "They were driving like mad men searching for someone to kill. ... It was total chaos, shooting and shouting," said the 28-year-old.

The witnesses reported seeing casualties, but the number could not be confirmed. One witness, named Fathi, said he saw at least two he believed were dead and many more wounded.

Unconfirmed reports say Libya's justice minister Mustapha Abdel Jalil resigned in protest over "the excessive use of force" against demonstrators in the north African country, a Libyan newspaper reported on Monday.

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