BENGHAZI, Libya — A Libyan army unit loyal to Moammar Gadhafi attacked anti-government protesters holed up in a mosque in a key city west of the capital Thursday, blasting a minaret with anti-aircraft missiles and automatic weapons, a witness said.
Protesters who had been camped inside and outside the mosque suffered heavy casualties in the attack on Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, the witness said, but he couldn't provide an exact toll.
Pro-Gadhafi forces have fought back fiercely as the longtime leader has seen his control whittled away, with Zawiya and other major Libyan cities and towns closer to the capital falling to the rebellion against his rule. In the east, now all but broken away, the opposition vowed to "liberate" Tripoli, where the Libyan leader is holed up with a force of militiamen roaming the streets and tanks guarding the outskirts.
Gadhafi's use of excessive force has so far helped him maintain control of Tripoli, a city that holds about a third of Libya's 6 million population. But the protesters' determination has divided the country and threatened to push it toward civil war.
The witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the 9 a.m. attack came a day after a Gadhafi aide identified as Abdullah Megrahi came to the city and warned the protesters to"leave or you will see a massacre."
"We told him we are not leaving, either death or victory," the witness said.
He expressed disbelief the army would attack its own people. Several military units have sided with Libyan protesters since the uprising began on Feb. 15.
"What is happening is horrible, those who attacked us are not the mercenaries; they are sons of our country," the witness said while sobbing. "Now there is heavy gunfire. They bombed the minaret of the mosque."
He said the protesters were mostly youths armed only with hunting rifles. He also said protesters from Zawiya did not intend to respond to a call by the opposition movement for a nationwide march to the capital on Friday.
"We have no intention to march to Tripoli. We talked about it and we agreed to stay here," he said, adding the pre-Gadhafi flag, which was adopted after the country declared independence from Italy in 195, had been raised on top of the tallest building in town.
The witness said protesters had detained seven uniformed men who belonged to the armed forces responsible for Thursday's attack.
Thousands gathered later at a plaza known as Martyrs' Square in a show of defiance after the attack.
"People came to send a clear message: we are not afraid of death or your bullets,"the witness said. "This regime will regret it. History will not forgive them."
"People are so angry at the international community, which is watching the killings without trying to stop them," he added.
He said that there are no police in the city, which is located near a key oil port and refineries on the Mediterranean, so people had formed committees to guard their houses and buildings. He also said Gadhafi loyalists had attacked Chinese and Egyptian employees of construction companies in the city.
The report couldn't immediately be confirmed.
International momentum has been building for action to punish Gadhafi's regime for the bloody crackdown it has unleashed against the protesters.
President Barack Obama said the suffering and bloodshed in Libya "is outrageous and it is unacceptable," and he directed his administration to prepare a full range of options, including possible sanctions that could freeze the assets and ban travel to the U.S. by Libyan officials.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the possibility of the European Union cutting off economic ties.
Another proposal gaining some traction was for the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent it using warplanes to hit protesters. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that if reports of such strikes are confirmed, "there's an immediate need for that level of protection."
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
Moammar Gadhafi's son claimed Thursday that the reported death tolls have been exaggerated, although he didn't provide his own figure. In a press conference aired on state TV, he said the number killed by police and the army had been limited and "talking about hundreds and thousands (killed) is a joke."
He also said a committee had been formed to investigate alleged foreign involvement in the protests.
Earlier Thursday, Libyan TV showed Egyptian passports, CDs and cell phones purportedly belonging to detainees who had allegedly confessed to plotting "terrorist" operations against the Libyan people. Other footage showed a dozen men lying on the ground, with their faces down, blindfolded and handcuffed. Rifles and guns were laid out next to them.