TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Soldiers deployed in Libya’s second city on Friday and opposition forces claimed to have seized control of a nearby town after days of violent crackdowns on demonstrations that Human Rights Watch said killed 24 people.
Protests inspired by the revolts that brought down long-serving rulers of neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia have led to an uprising with little precedent in the 41-year rule of strongman leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said that according to its sources inside Libya, security forces had killed at least 24 people over the past two days. Exile groups have given higher tolls which could not be confirmed.
Opponents of Gaddafi had designated Thursday as a day of rage to try to emulate uprisings sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East. Unrest continued well into the night.
The demonstrations have been focussed in the country’s east, including its second largest city, Benghazi. The area is largely cut-off from international media.
“Last night was very hard, there were a lot of people in the street, thousands of people. I saw soldiers in the street,” a resident who lives on Benghazi’s main thoroughfare, Nasser Street, told Reuters.
“I heard shooting. I saw one person fall down (from a gunshot wound) but I don’t have a figure for casualties.”
The privately-owned Quryna newspaper, based in Benghazi, said security forces overnight fired live bullets at protesters, killing seven of them. It published photographs of several people lying on hospital stretchers with bloodstained bandages.
Two Swiss-based exile groups said anti-government forces joined by defecting police had seized control of the city of Al Bayda, 200 km (125 miles) northeast of Benghazi and the site of deadly clashes in recent days.
“Al Bayda is in the hands of the people,” Giumma el-Omami of the Libyan Human Rights Solidarity group told Reuters in Geneva. Fathi al-Warfali of the Libyan Committee for Truth and Justice said: “The city is out of the control of the Gaddafi regime.”
Later, both groups, citing contacts in the city, said government militias had been rapidly reinforced and were now attempting to retake Al Bayda, with residents fighting back with any weapons they could find. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
A source in Benghazi, who said he had been in contact with people in Al Bayda, told Reuters there had been more deaths in that town overnight, adding to at least five killed earlier. “There are a lot of people killed,” he said.
CALM IN TRIPOLI
The capital Tripoli has been calmer, with Gadaffi supporters staging demonstrations of their own. The leader appeared in the early hours of Friday briefly at Green Square in the centre of Tripoli, surrounded by crowds of supporters. He did not speak.
His opponents, using social media networks Facebook and Twitter, called for new protests across Libya after people went to the mosques for Friday prayers.
A Benghazi resident told Reuters by telephone the city appeared to be calm after prayers but residents were unsure what would happen after funerals of people killed in the protests.
Two people in Benghazi, which is about 1,000 km (600 miles) east of Tripoli, told Reuters that Saadi Gaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader and ex-professional soccer player in Italy, had taken over command of the city.
Libya, holder of the Arab League’s rotating presidency, said it was postponing a summit planned for Iraq in March, citing “circumstances in the Arab world.” But the league’s secretariat said it had received no formal notification.
Libya-watchers say the situation is different from Egypt, because Gaddafi has oil cash to smooth over social problems. Gaddafi is respected in much of the country, though support for him is weaker in the Cyrenaica region around Benghazi.
“For sure there is no national uprising,” said Noman Benotman, a former opposition Libyan Islamist who is based in Britain but is currently in Tripoli. “I don’t think Libya is comparable to Egypt or Tunisia. Gaddafi would fight to the very last moment,” he said by telephone from the Libyan capital.
Muammar Gaddafi’s opponents say they want political freedoms, respect for human rights and an end to corruption. Gaddafi describes his political system as true democracy