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Gadhafi militia open fire on Libya protesters

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 9:33 a.m. MST

Egyptians, who used to work in Libya, wait by their belongings for buses to take them further inland after they fled Libya, at the Tunisia-Libya border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, Friday, Feb. 25, 2011.

Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press

BENGHAZI, Libya — Militias loyal to Moammar Gadhafi opened fire Friday on protesters streaming out of mosques and marching across the Libyan capital to demand the regime's ouster, witnesses said, reporting at least four killed. In rebellious cities in the east, tens of thousands held rallies in support of the first Tripoli protests in days.

In the capital's Souq al-Jomaa district, protesters came under fire from gunmen on rooftops as they tried to march to Tripoli's central Green Square, several miles (kilometers) away. "There are all kind of bullets," said one man in the crowd, screaming in a telephone call to The Associated Press, with the rattle of gunfire audible in the background.

One witness reported seeing three protesters killed in Souq al-Jomaa, and another reported a fourth death in the district of Fashloum, where another rally was trying to march to the center. The reports could not be immediately confirmed.

Gunmen opened a hail of bullets on thousands heading toward the center from Tajoura, a crowded impoverished district on the eastern side of the capital, a participant said.

"We can't see where it is coming from," he said. "They don't want to stop." He said one man next to him was shot in the neck. Others reported gunfire near Green Square itself where dozens of militiamen opened fire in the air to disperse protesters coming out of a nearby mosque. Other armed Gadhafi supporters were speeding through streets in vehicles, said another witness.

The call for regime opponents to march from mosques after prayers was the first attempt to hold a major anti-Gadhafi rally 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 Gadhafi 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-Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi continued to fray within a regime where he long commanded unquestioned loyalty.

Libya's delegation to the United Nations in Geneva announced Friday it was defecting to the opposition — and it was given a standing ovation at a gathering of the U.N. Human Rights Council. 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 Gadhafi's cousins and closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, who sought refuge in Egypt.

On a visit to Turkey, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the violence by pro-Gadhafi forces is unacceptable and should not go unpunished.

"Mr. Gadhafi must go," he said.

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."

The upheaval in the OPEC nation has taken most of Libya's oil production of 1.6 million barrels a day off the market. Oil prices hovered above $98 a barrel Friday in Asia, backing away from a spike to $103 the day before amid signs the crisis in Libya may have cut crude supplies less than previously estimated.

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