(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
BENGHAZI, Libya — Militias loyal to Muammar Gaddafi opened fire Friday on protesters streaming out of mosques and marching across the Libyan capital to demand the regime's ouster, witnesses said, reporting multiple deaths. In rebellious cities in the east, tens of thousands held rallies in support of the first Tripoli protests in days.
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Protesters described coming under a hail of bullets as they tried to march from several districts around the city toward Tripoli's central Green Square. One man among a crowd of thousands said gunmen on rooftops and in the streets opened fire with automatic weapons and even an anti-aircraft gun.
"In the first wave of fire, seven people within 10 meters (yards) of me were killed. Many people were shot in the head," the man, who was marching from Tripoli's eastern Tajoura district, told The Associated Press. "It was really like we are dogs."
"We can't see where it is coming from," another protester from Tajoura
said of the gunfire. "They don't want to stop." He said a man next to
him was shot in the neck.
Militiamen opened fire on other marches in the nearby Souq al-Jomaa and
Fashloum districts, where witnesses reported four killed. The reports
could not be immediately confirmed.
In the evening, Gaddafi appeared before a crowd over more than 1,000
supporters massed in Green Square and called on them to fight back
against protesters and "defend the nation."
"Retaliate against them, retaliate against them," Gaddafi said, speaking
by microphone from the ramparts of the Red Castle, a Crusader fort
overlooking the square. Wearing a fur cap and sunglasses, he shook his
fist in the air, telling the crowd, "Dance, sing and prepare. Prepare to
defend Libya, to defend the oil, dignity and independence."
He warned, "At the suitable time we will open the arms depot so all
Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire."
The crowd waved pictures of the leader and green flags as he said, "I am
in the middle of the people in the Green Square. ... This is the people
that loves Muammar Gaddafi. If the people of Libya and the Arabs and
Africans don't love Muammar Gaddafi then Muammar Gaddafi does not
deserve to live."
Friday's marches were the first significant protests by regime opponents
in the capital since early this week, when militiamen launched a bloody
crackdown on protesters that left dozens dead. In the morning and night
before, SMS messages were sent around urging, "Let us make this Friday
the Friday of liberation," residents said. The residents and witnesses
all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Tripoli, home to about a third of Libya's population of 6 million, is
the center of the eroding territory that Gaddafi still controls. The
uprising that began Feb. 15 has swept over nearly the entire eastern
half of the country, breaking cities there out of his regime's hold.
Even in the pocket of northwestern Libya around Tripoli, several cities
have also fallen into the hands of the rebellion. Militiamen and
pro-Gaddafi troops were repelled Thursday when they launched attacks
trying to take back opposition-held territory in Zawiya and Misrata,
near the capital, in fighting that killed at least 30 people.
Support for Gaddafi continued to fray within a regime where he long commanded unquestioned loyalty.
Libya's entire 11-member Arab League mission said it had resigned en
masse in protest of Gaddafi's use of force against his opponents. The
head of the delegation, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, had already resigned as
Libya's ambassador to the 22-member Arab League on Sunday.
They join a string of Libyan ambassadors and diplomats around the world
who abandoned the regime, as have the justice and interior ministers at
home, and one of Gaddafi's cousins and closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf
al-Dam, who sought refuge in Egypt.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll in Libya at
nearly 300, according to a partial count. Italy's Foreign Minister
Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed were