Witnesses in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, say government buildings have been set on fire as opposition activists battle security forces and government supporters in a sharp escalation of an uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The witnesses say several government buildings were ablaze Monday after gunfire erupted in Tripoli for the first time late Sunday, when anti-government protesters tried to seize control of the capital’s center from Gadhafi loyalists. They say Libyan police fired tear gas to try to disperse the protesters.
Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam went on state television Sunday to proclaim that his father remains in charge with military support in the face of the most serious anti-government revolt since the elder Gadhafi took power in a 1969 coup. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi vowed that the government will fight until “the last man, the last woman, and the last bullet” to stay in power.
Wagging his finger in a rambling address, Saif al-Islam warned Libyans to stop the uprising or risk igniting a civil war that will drown the country in “rivers of blood” and lead to a return of colonial powers. He insisted that Libya is “not Egypt or Tunisia” – neighboring countries whose strongmen were swept from power in recent weeks.
Saif al-Islam blamed the protests that erupted in eastern Libya last Monday on a variety of culprits, including Libyan exiles, Islamists, foreign media, and drug abusers. But, he conceded that Libyan security forces had made some “mistakes” in cracking down on demonstrators because of a lack of training in dealing with such situations.
U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch said Sunday at least 233 people have been killed in several days of Libyan unrest, mostly in the eastern city of Benghazi, the focal point of the initial protests. Doctors in Benghazi say at least 50 people were killed Sunday as security forces fired on demonstrators and funeral marchers.
The younger Gadhafi gave a lower death toll for the nationwide protests, saying 84 people had died. In a conciliatory move, he said the government is willing to begin a dialogue on political reforms, including a new constitution and confederate power structure.
In other developments Sunday, a representative of Libya’s powerful Warfla tribe said it has turned against Moammar Gadhafi and is siding with the opposition. Several Libyan diplomats also quit in protest at the government’s violent crackdown, including the Libyan representative to the Arab League and the Libyan ambassador to India.
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Libyan authorities have cut Internet and some telephone services in response to the protests, making it difficult to independently verify reports of violence. But foreign media organizations have been able to speak to witnesses in the country through satellite phones and other connections.