By Suzanne Presto
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi continue to attack anti-government protesters, but the opposition groups appear to be gaining more of a foothold, despite the brutal crackdown.
The official picture coming out of Libya is far different from the one presented by Libyan civilians.
Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, downplayed reports of casualties when he appeared on Libyan state television Thursday to discuss the uprising.
He said only a small number of people had died, but he did not provide a figure. And he invited foreign media to tour Libya Friday, challenging them to find evidence of bombings or brutality.
Hundreds killed, says sources
But hospital sources, human rights groups and witnesses tell a far bloodier story.
“I can’t manage [to say] how many dead exactly, more than 300 in Benghazi, and injured more than 3,000,” said Dr. Hisham Mustafa Abou Dabous, a physician at a hospital in the now opposition-controlled eastern city of Benghazi, where the revolt began.
While much of the east is reported to be under opposition control, the revolt against Gadhafi is spreading westward toward the capital, Tripoli.
Witnesses told foreign media that the Libyan army attacked anti-government protesters in a mosque in the city of Zawiya Thursday. They described heavy casualties after security forces used anti-aircraft missiles and automatic weapons.
Clashes in Misrata
Multiple witnesses say opposition protesters have driven security forces out of the coastal city of Misrata, but there are also reports of ongoing clashes there.
Moammar Gadhafi addressed Libyans via telephone on Libyan state television Thursday afternoon. He said the uprising is the work of al-Qaida, and he accused anti-government protesters of being trigger-happy teenagers and drug addicts.
Senior Libyan government officials have said they view journalists who enter the country without permission as al-Qaida collaborators. It is difficult to independently confirm accounts coming out of the region.
Gadhafi appears to be losing sway within the international community and within his own circle of influence. One of Gadhafi’s closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, defected in protest of the fierce crackdown on demonstrators.
The U.S. government has condemned the ongoing violence. European Union nations have agreed to discuss possible sanctions against Libya. Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has said, if the crackdown continues, sanctions are inevitable.
Speaking after a meeting with Arab League chief Amr Moussa in Cairo Thursday, Westerwelle again denounced the violent suppression of the Libyan people.
“We cannot accept that a dictator is really punishing in such a violent way his own people, the young people of Libya,” said Westerwelle. “This is a war of a dictator against the young people. And this is something which we condemn absolutely, in a clear language.”
Italy’s Interior Minister Ernesto Roberto Maroni is calling on EU nations to provide urgent help in coping with what he called “a catastrophic humanitarian crisis” that is building in Libya. Interior ministers from Mediterranean countries are discussing ways to handle the flow of refugees.
Libyan anti-government protesters are calling for major rallies against Gadhafi’s rule on Friday.
Protests continue in Yemen
Elsewhere in the region, protests continued Thursday in Yemen’s capital Sana’a.
They denounced the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and called for him to leave.
Yemen’s president has ordered security forces to prevent direct confrontations between pro-government and anti-government demonstrators, after video circulated of clashes between rival protesters while police stood aside. Two anti-government protesters were killed in Sana’a this week.
Meanwhile, Egypt is in a state of transition, nearly two weeks after a popular uprising forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Security officials Thursday said Egyptian authorities have arrested the former information minister and the head of state broadcasting for alleged corruption.