In an address to the nation on state TV, Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi has warned that his nation is on the brink of civil war.
Adding to claims from the prime minister, he said there were attempts to turn his country into a ‘terrorist base’, and that his father’s regime ‘will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet.’
He said the death toll had been exaggerated – some media outlets have put the number killed by police, troops, and even reported foreign mercenaries, as high as 200 – and that only 84 had died, although he expressed regret for those killed.
Gaddafi said the the People’s Congress would discuss reform on Monday, but warned that civil war could be around the corner if protests did not end.
The speech came as anti-regime protests reached the capital and world powers denounced the iron-fisted crackdown. In a challenging scenario for foreign media, unable to report from the country, the BBC said there were clashes in the centre of the city between pro and anti-government elements. Unconfirmed reports on Twitter said late on Sunday night that protesters were holding the central square.
Amid rumours of his departure, the challenge to Gaddafi was mounting with reports which Al Jazeera said in a live blog had been backed up by witnesses, that anti-government protesters were effectively in control of the city of Benghazi.
Reports said that pro-Gaddafi militia in the city, centre of many of the killings of protesters, were ‘being butchered.’
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi appeared to confirm that certain elements had taken hold of government troops and weaponry.B ut he said if violence continued, the situation may deteriorate towards a scenario which was worse than that seen in Iraq.
The news came amid unconfirmed reports that troops were joining in the protests in the city of Benghazi.
And in another significant crack in the regime’s public face, Libya’s envoy to the Arab League announced he was “joining the revolution”, AFP reported.
“I have submitted my resignation in protest against the acts of repression and violence against demonstrators (in Libya) and I am joining the ranks of the revolution,” Abdel Moneim al-Honi said.
Ironically, Libya currently holds the rotating presidency of the 22-member Arab League.
The network also reported that the Libyan ambassador to China had resigned live on air.
As the death toll continued to rise, world leaders stepped up their pressure over the response to the unprecedented challenge to his four-decade rule of the oil-rich North African country.
Reports on Twitter, confirmed by witnesses, said protests had broken out in the capital of Tripoli for the first time on Sunday night local time, with live-fire and tear gas used in response.
And state television announced that Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, would address the nation later on Sunday.
The 68-year-old Gaddafi has himself made no public comment since violence erupted on Tuesday.
In what was the first high-level public reaction to six days of bloody protests, Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi told EU ambassadors in Tripoli, without elaborating, that there are “very precise plans, destructive and terrorist, that want Libya to become a base for terrorism.”
And he said Libya has the “right to take all measures to preserve its unity, stability and people, and to assure the protection of its riches and preserve its relations with other countries,” state news agency Jana reported.
‘Reality and lies’
Mahmudi also lashed out at “foreign news media,” whose reports he said were a “mixture, without distinction, of reality and lies.”
While Mahmudi gave no details to support his claims, an official said earlier on Sunday that security forces had foiled an attempt by saboteurs to set fire to oil wells at the Sarir field.
He said six Libyans had been arrested and that the “gang received its weapons from outside Libya and got its instructions through the internet.”
And another official told AFP that Islamist gunmen had stormed a military depot and the nearby port of Derna on Wednesday and Friday and seized weapons and vehicles after killing four soldiers.
They also took hostages, both soldiers and civilians, and were “threatening to execute them unless a siege by security forces is lifted” in nearby Al-Baida.
With most of this week’s violence concentrated in the east of the country, unrest hit the capital itself on Sunday night, one resident told AFP.
Speaking from the working-class district of Gurgi, on Tripoli’s western approaches, the source said “there are demonstrations. You can hear slogans shouted against the regime and gunfire. Tear gas has got into my house.”
Another witness spoke of tyres burning in the neighbourhood.
Earlier, witnesses told AFP by telephone that security forces clashed with anti-regime protesters in the Mediterranean city of Misrata, 200 kilometres from Tripoli.
The witnesses said security forces, backed by “African mercenaries,” fired on crowds “without discrimination.”
Trouble in the East
In the eastern city of Benghazi, which has borne the brunt of the violence, protests continued, lawyer Mohammed al-Mughrabi told AFP by telephone.
“Lawyers are demonstrating outside the Northern Benghazi court; there are thousands here. We have called it Tahrir Square Two,” he said of the Cairo square central to protests that brought down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Separately, others are “storming the garrison” and “taking fire from snipers,” Mughrabi said, without elaborating.
He said “at least 200 have been killed altogether (since the unrest began) but we can’t verify from hospital. We are pleading for the Red Cross to send field hospitals. We can’t take it any more.”
Speaking to Al-Jazeera television, one resident spoke of “out-of-sight massacres” in Benghazi.
“It feels like an open war zone between protesters and security forces,” said Fathi Terbeel, a protest organiser. “Our numbers show that more than 200 people have been killed. God have mercy on them.”
In London, Human Rights Watch said at least 173 people had died since Tuesday.
“It’s a conservative figure based on hospital sources in eastern Libya, Benghazi and three other places,” HRW’s Tom Porteous said. “It is a very incomplete figure and there are also a very large umber of wounded.
“According to medical sources in Libya the wounds are indicative of heavy weapons being used against the demonstrators.”
Porteous had said earlier that “we are very concerned that under the communication blackout that has fallen on Libya since yesterday a human rights catastrophe is unfolding.”
The United States strongly condemned the use of lethal force in Libya and called on Tripoli to allow peaceful protests after “credible reports” of hundreds of casualties.
“We are working to ascertain the facts, but we have received multiple credible reports that hundreds of people have been killed and injured in several days of unrest — and the full extent of the death toll is unknown due to the lack of access of international media and human rights organisations,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
“Libyan officials have stated their commitment to protecting and safeguarding the right of peaceful protest. We call upon the Libyan government to uphold that commitment, and hold accountable any security officer who does not act in accordance with that commitment.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he will raise the crackdown with EU ministers this week, and urged Arab nations to speak out.
“I think we have to increase the international pressure and condemnation,” Hague told Sky News television.
“The United Kingdom condemns what the Libyan government has been doing and how they have responded to these protests, and we look to other countries to do the same.”
The Foreign Office said Hague had spoken to Gaddafi’s son Seif, who heads the Gaddafi Human Rights Society.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that she was “really worried about what is happening in Libya,” whose government has told Brussels to stop “encouraging” demonstrators or face a halt to cooperation on illegal immigration.
“We have been urging restraint and it is important to continue to do so,” Ashton said. “It is very, very important that the violence stops.”
German European Affairs Minister Werner Hoyer expressed Berlin’s “indignation” at the crackdown, speaking at the start of an EU ministerial session on the revolts sweeping the Arab world.