A U.S.-based rights group says a Libyan government crackdown on anti-government protesters in the country’s east has killed at least 104 people in five days of unrest.
Human Rights Watch issued the estimate Sunday, a day after Libyan security forces fired on protesters in the second largest city of Benghazi, where crowds gathered for the funerals of other activists.
Arab media reports say at least 15 protesters were killed in Saturday’s shootings, which some residents described as a “massacre.” Witnesses say snipers opened fire after the mourners tried to storm a military building.
The demonstrations have been largely confined to Benghazi and other cities in eastern Libya since they began last Tuesday. They represent an unprecedented challenge to the four-decade rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whose supporters have staged small rallies in the capital, Tripoli, in recent days.
The U.S. State Department issued a warning to Americans Sunday to stay away from eastern Libya, saying more demonstrations and violent incidents are possible in the coming days. It also said even peaceful protests can quickly become unruly and foreigners “could become a target of harassment or worse.”
Libyan authorities also cut off Internet services in the country Saturday, denying cyber activists a key tool to mobilize demonstrators.
There was no independent confirmation of Libyan witnesses’ accounts of the violence, as the government has barred local and foreign journalists from covering the unrest.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a statement Saturday urging Libya to stop using force against demonstrators and calling the violence “clearly unacceptable and horrifying.” He also expressed concern about Libyan restrictions on media access.
Mr. Gadhafi has tried to defuse the protests by doubling the salaries of state employees and releasing 110 suspected Islamic militants. He took power in a 1969 coup and has built his rule on a cult of personality and a network of family and tribal alliances.