Hussein Malla, Associated Press
BENGHAZI, Libya — Thousands of Libyans demanding Moammar Gadhafi's ouster rallied to show solidarity with the besieged capital, while the government moved to tighten its grip on Tripoli following opposition gains elsewhere in the country.
Tanks and checkpoints lined the road leading to Tripoli's airport, and security cordons went up around mosques where protesters might gather. Young armed men, some wearing green bands on their arms in a sign of loyalty to Gadhafi, checked vehicles for weapons.
Foreign mercenaries and Libyan militiamen loyal to Gadhafi have fought fiercely to roll back the uprising against his rule, attacking two nearby cities Thursday in battles that killed at least 17 people. But rebels made new gains, seizing a military air base, as Gadhafi blamed Osama bin Laden for the upheaval.
A Tripoli resident said people in the capital have received messages on their cell phones urging them to launch demonstrations after Friday prayers, and he said he expected thousands to comply despite fear of pro-Gadhafi militiamen who have been deployed on the streets.
The capital's central Green Square was the site of intense clashes earlier in the week between government supporters and protesters.
The resident said the government detained several activists in Tripoli late Thursday to try to prevent the demonstrations from taking place. Among those detained was Mukhtar al-Mahmoudi, a former member of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, who in the past spent six years in jail, the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"Let us make this Friday the Friday of liberation," one of the messages read, according to the resident.
Gadhafi's crackdown — the harshest by any Arab leader in the wave of protests that has swept the Middle East the past month — has so far helped him maintain control of Tripoli, home to about a third of Libya's 6 million population. But the uprising has divided the country and raised the specter of civil war.
Signaling continued defiance, Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, vowed his family will "live and die in Libya," according an excerpt from an interview to be aired later Friday on CNNTurk. Asked about alternatives in the face of growing unrest, Gadhafi said "Plan A is to live and die in Libya, Plan B is to live and die in Libya, Plan C is to live and die in Libya.
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 "credible."
Residents in Tripoli have largely been holed up at home for days amid fear of pro-Gadhafi militiamen — a mix of Libyans and foreign mercenaries — and it was unclear how many would respond to the call.
But witnesses in cities under rebel control said they expected mass demonstrations in a show of solidarity.
Tens of thousands gathered outside a courthouse for prayer services in the eastern city of Benghazi, the coastal city where the uprising began on Feb. 15. Tents — some with photographs of people who had been killed in fighting — were set up on the square and protesters served breakfast to people, many carrying signs in Arabic and Italian.
"We will not stop this rally until Tripoli is the capital again," said Omar Moussa, a demonstrator. "Libyans are all united ... Tripoli is our capital. Tripoli is in our hearts."
A few tanks that were parked on the beach were covered with people.
Muslim cleric Sameh Jaber, wearing the traditional Libyan white robe and a red cap, told worshippers that Libyans "have revolted against injustice" and called for revenge against Gadhafi "because of what he did to the Libyan people."
International momentum also has been building for action to punish Gadhafi's regime for the bloodshed.
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