CAIRO — Protesters battled with security forces for control of neighborhoods Friday in eastern Libya where dozens have reportedly been killed in two days of clashes, as a leadership congress controlled by Moammar Gadhafi pledged a change in government administrators, trying to ease demonstrations demanding the longtime leader's ouster.
Residents in the eastern city of Beyida said security reinforcements had been bused in, including what they said where foreign African mercenaries, to put down protesters who burned police stations. But local police, who belong to the same tribe as the residents, were battling alongside protesters against security forces, two witnesses in the city told The Associated Press.
A hospital official in Beyida said Friday that the bodies of at least 23 protesters slain over the past 48 hours were at his facility, which was treating about 500 wounded — some in the parking lot for lack of beds. Another witness reported 26 protesters buried Thursday and early Friday.
"We need doctors, medicine and everything," the hospital official said.
The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, and though several separate people gave similar reports, their accounts could not be independently confirmed.
The pro-democracy movement that has swept up the Middle East has taken off in Libya over the last four days, putting unprecedented pressure on Gadhafi, who has ruled virtually unchecked since 1969.
Libya is oil-rich, but the gap between its haves and have-nots is wide, and the protests have flared hardest in the more impoverished eastern parts of the country, the site of anti-government agitation in the past. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates about one-third of Libyans live in poverty, and U.S. diplomats have said in newly leaked memos that Gadhafi's regime seems to neglect the east intentionally, letting unemployment and poverty rise to weaken opponents there.
Protesters clashes with police in the eastern city of Benghazi on Friday after a funeral march to bury 15 protesters shot to death by security forces a day earlier, said Gamal Bandour, a judge in the city, the second largest in Libya after the capital Tripoli. On their way back from the service, the mourners set fire to government buildings and police stations, he said.
Nizar Jebail, owner of an advertising company, said Friday he spent the night with other protesters camped out in front of the city's court building. He said he wants not just reforms, "but freedom and equality."
"There are lawyers, judges, men and some women here, demanding the ouster of Gadhafi. Forty-two years of dictatorship are enough," he said by phone.
"We don't have tents yet but residents provided us with blankets and food," he said. "We learned from Tunisia and Egypt."
A pro-government website acknowledged that security forces in Benghazi opened fire on protesters Thursday, but put the death toll at 14. The Quryna site said security was "forced to fire live ammunition to stop the protesters, when their protests turned violent."
Forces from the military's elite Khamis Brigade moved into at several cities, residents said. They were accompanied by militias that seemed to consist of foreign mercenaries, residents said. Several witnesses reported French-speaking fighters in blue uniforms, believed to be Tunisians or sub-Saharan Africans.
The Khamis Brigade are led by Gadhafy's youngest son Khamis, and U.S. diplomats in leaked memos have called it "the most well-trained and well-equipped force in the Libyan military." The witnesses' reports that it had been deployed could not be independently confirmed.
But they said the brigade troops appeared to keep their distance, at times using snipers to try to disperse protesters. Instead, the militiamen led the direct assault on protesters with knives and automatic weapons, residents in Benghazi and Beyida said.
In Beyida, several witnesses said local police joined the demonstrators to fight the militias, driving them out of many neighborhoods. The protesters demolished a military air base runway with bulldozers and set fire to police stations.
"These mercenaries are now hiding in the forests. We hear the gunshots all the time," one witness said. "We don't have water, we don't have electricity. They blocked many websites."
Another said that residents are "now celebrating and cheering, after taking control over the city. They are chanting, 'The people want the ouster of the colonel,'" a reference to Gadhafi. The witness claimed protesters were headed to Benghazi to join in the conflict there.
New videos from Beyida showed bloodstained bodies of the dead in a morgue, protesters torching a municipal building and demolishing a statue for the Green Book, which outlines Gadhafi's "authority of the people." Protesters tore down a pro-Gadhafi billboard.
Two of the mercenaries were captured by the protesters and were taken to a square in the city and hanged, after they reportedly opened fire on protesters, said one witness. A Switzerland-based Libyan opposition activist, Fathi al-Warfali, said he had reports of protesters lynching 11 captured mercenaries in Beyida, Banghazi and the town of Darnah on Friday.
In Zentan, a female resident said militamen attacked the city after protesters set fire to police stations and sprayed graffiti on the walls that read: "Down with Gadhafi." Officials with loudspeakers offered money for residents to stop protesting, but then cut off electricity and water, the woman said, describing how she was standing of top of her building, watching the events.
Meanwhile, Quryna, which has ties to Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, another of Gahdafi's sons, said Friday that the country's national congress has halted its session indefinitely and said many state executives will be replaced when it returns.
In addition to replacing top officials, it will endorse reforms to decentralize and restructure the government, it said.
The site also said 1,000 inmates at a prison in Benghazi attacked guards and escaped. Three of them were shot dead by guards.
Residents of Tripoli, where small protests took place in central districts, said that they received a text message to their cell phones threatening people "who dare to violate the four red lines" which include Gadhafi himself, national security, oil and Libyan territory, said one woman who received the message.
Already, a newspaper regarded as a Gadhafi mouthpiece had threatened demonstrators.
"Whoever tries to violate them or touch them will be committing suicide and playing with fire," an editorial in the Az-Zahf Al-Akhdar, or the Green March, newspaper said on Thursday.