Eyewitnesses tell Channel 4 News dozens are dying as sniper units shoot people on the streets, while the former British Ambassador to Libya, Sir Richard Dalton, examines the challenge to Col Gaddafi.
The unrest, the worst in Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s four decades in power, started out as a series of protests inspired by popular revolts in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia but was met by a fierce security crackdown.
Witnesses in the eastern city of Benghazi said security forces had pulled back to a fortified compound in the centre of the town from where they were shooting at people returning from burying protesters killed on previous days.
“Most of them are being shot by snipers, from far away in the head or in the chest by Africans.” – Eyewitness in Benghazi
One man told Channel 4 News: “A lot of people are dying on the streets. There are lot of cars with troops from outside Libya, I think they are Nigerian, from African countries.
“Most of them are being shot by snipers, from far away in the head or in the chest by Africans. Most of them don’t speak good Arabic, they speak French. “
He told us that protesters had in the last few hours received heavy weapons from eastern Libya which they are preparing to use against the government’s security services. As the man, who did not wish to be identified, spoke to Channel 4 News, heavy gunfire could be heard in the background. “Get inside,” he shouted to others.
Another witness told Reuters: “Dozens were killed…We are in the midst of a massacre here”. He said security forces had used heavy weapons, adding: “Many soldiers and policemen have joined the protesters.”
Another resident, who also declined to be named, said: “Some 100,000 protesters are now heading for a cemetery to bury dozens of martyrs.”
A Benghazi hospital doctor said victims had suffered severe wounds from high-velocity rifles.
A leading tribal figure who requested anonymity, suggested the security forces remained confined to their control centre.
“The state’s official presence is absent in the city and the security forces are in their barracks and the city is in a state of civil mutiny,” he told Reuters. “People are running their own affairs.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said about 90 people were killed yesterday in clashes centred on Benghazi and surrounding towns running into the night, taking the death toll from four days of clashes to 173.
The Libyan government has not released any casualty figures or made any official comment on the violence.
Libya uprising: what next for Gaddafi's regime?
The Libyan government's extreme use of force threatens to fan the flames of dissent, writes former British Ambassador to Libya, Sir Richard Dalton, for Channel 4 News.
The libyan leadership's instinct will be to rely on force to restore calm and their control in places where they have lost it.
But there is a serious possibility that this will merely pour fuel on the flames and spread them to new areas.
Read more: Libya uprising: what next for Gaddafi's regime?
In Libya’s capital Tripoli, several thousand Gaddafi supporters rallied in the city’s Green Square until the early hours of Sunday morning.
They chanted “God, Libya and Muammar!” and “Muammar is the pioneer of Arab nationalism!”
Libya’s state news agency said some Libyan cities had seen acts of arson and vandalism, and said it was the work of “a foreign network trained on how to create clashes and chaos so as to destabilise Libya.”
However, one woman living in the east of the city, told Channel 4 News she was too scared to leave the house. “My husband went out this morning, he said the streets were empty, people were scared. He tried to get money out from the bank but he couldn’t.
“So I said, ok let my son go to the store, but my son – he didn’t come back and I hear from people – I call them and they say why did you send him? For two days I kept him in the house.”
She feared he may have joined protesters at the supreme court. “I hope he didn’t go there because he’s young and very nervous.”
The woman then had to cut short the conversation, and Channel 4 News heard gunfire in the background. “Oh my goodness,” she said. “There’s something happening now – they are shooting I’m sorry I have to go.”
Ripples of unrest
Morocco: At least 2,000 protesters gathered in a square in Morocco's capital on Sunday to demand that King Mohammed give up some of his powers and clamp down on government corruption. Protesters brandished slogans such as: "The people reject a constitution made for slaves!" and "The people want the autocracy down!" Uniformed police kept their distance from the protest, in Rabat's Bab El Ahad area, though there were plain-clothes officers mingling in the crowd with notebooks. Analysts say Morocco, with a reformist monarch who is widely respected, and a growing economy, is one of the Arab countries least likely to succumb to the wave of protests sweeping the region.
Yemen: Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to break up a demonstration by opponents of the government on Sunday and shots were fired as unrest in the country entered its ninth straight day. As many as 50 government supporters tried to disrupt the demonstration by more than 1,000 Saleh opponents gathered outside Sanaa University chanting "Leave, Ali". One Saleh supporter fired shots from an assault rifle, but there were no reported casualties and Saleh's supporters soon dispersed, while the protesters continued their demonstration. Both sides fired weapons on Saturday in protests outside the university -- the first reported use of firearms by demonstrators. Several protesters were hurt in those clashes, while five people were wounded, apparently by stray bullets, in the southern town of Sheikh Othman. Five people were killed in protests against Saleh's 32-year rule on Friday. He blamed a "foreign agenda" and a "conspiracy against Yemen, its security and stability".
Bahrain: Bahrain's opposition drew up a list of demands, including prisoner releases and a cabinet change, ahead of peace talks with the Crown Prince today. Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who is leading a national dialogue today, said: "All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table." The talks come as thousands of anti-government protesters camp at Pearl Square, following a retreat from Bahrain's armed forces after days of unrest that left six people dead. Read more: Bahrain set for talks as calm returns
The fierce military crackdown on the protests prompted about 50 Libyan Muslim religious leaders to issue an appeal, sent to Reuters, for the security forces, as Muslims, to stop the killing.
“We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator”. – Religious scholars
“This is an urgent appeal from religious scholars (faqihs and Sufi sheikhs), intellectuals, and clan elders from Tripoli, Bani Walid, Zintan, Jadu, Msalata, Misrata, Zawiah, and other towns and villages of the western area,” said the appeal.
“We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him)…Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!”.
Some analysts have said it is possible there will be negotiations between Gaddafi and eastern tribal leaders, and an SMS message sent late on Saturday to Libyan mobile phone subscribers hinted at a more conciliatory approach.
“All citizens and youth of Benghazi, those who died among the civilians and police are all sons of our country. Enough of what has happened and stop the bloodshed.”
Libya watchers say an Egypt-style nationwide revolt is unlikely because Gaddafi has oil cash to smooth over social problems, and is still respected in much of the country.
Gaddafi has traditionally had less support in the eastern region around Benghazi than in the rest of the oil-producing country, and the city has been the scene of violence in the past.
“This is the most significant home-grown challenge ever to the Libyan system of government and to Colonel Gaddafi’s leadership,” Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya, writes for Channel 4 News.
Witness accounts have been hard to verify independently because Libyan authorities have not allowed foreign journalists into the country since the protests erupted and local reporters have been barred from travelling to Benghazi.
Mobile phone connections have often been out of service and Internet service in Libya has been cut off, according to a US company that monitors web traffic. People in Tripoli said they had Internet access late on Saturday.
A Benghazi resident said security forces were confined to a compound from which snipers were firing at protesters.
“Right now, the only military presence in Benghazi is confined to the Command Centre Complex in the city. The rest of the city is liberated,” he said late on Saturday.
“Thousands and thousands of people have gathered in front of Benghazi’s court house … All the revolutionary committee (local government) offices and police stations in the city have been burned,” he said.