In a sign that the first cracks are starting to show in the Libyan regime, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son warned in a lengthy and rambling address broadcast live last night that the overthrow of the regime would lead to civil war and the break-up of the country.
The address by Saif Gaddafi, who is viewed as reform-minded in the West, came as the first major anti-government protests spread to the capital, Tripoli, striking at the heart of the regime and making Colonel Gaddafi's 42-year hold on power appear increasingly precarious.
The Libyan leader's son said the number of dead had been greatly exaggerated and blamed outside forces for the unrest, but he went on to pledge a package of reforms and higher wages to bring the crisis under control. Still, it remained unclear if his message would be enough to head off protesters' demands for the removal of Colonel Gaddafi, who is facing the most serious challenge to his rule since he seized power in 1969. Libya's second city of Benghazi was a scene of chaos and bloodshed yesterday amid reports that anti-regime protesters had seized control.
Security forces had earlier fired indiscriminately on mourners attending the funerals of those killed in recent days, but appeared to lose the advantage after a key military battalion defected to the side of the protesters.
Libya's bloody crackdown on the opposition protesters – described by scores of eyewitnesses as a massacre – has now left more than 230 dead in only six days and pushed tensions in the North African country to the boiling point. It marks the most brutal response of any country since last month's Tunisian revolt set off a chain reaction of popular uprisings against authoritarian rulers across the Arab world.
Amid a media blackout, Libyan bloggers and online activists have sought to get out reports describing scenes of carnage and issue urgent appeals to the West for help. Much of the violence has been concentrated in the north-east of Libya, particularly in Benghazi and Al Bayda, where support for Colonel Gaddafi is traditionally much weaker. But there were reports late yesterday that clashes had also broken out in Tripoli's Green Square, a key development that would make the revolt much harder to contain.
In Benghazi, people described a city beset with violence and fear, claiming that mercenaries from Chad, Zimbabwe and North African countries went on a killing spree, opening fire on protesters, be they men, women or children. "There are no police in the streets any longer, it is mainly the militias and the Africans who have come in," said Hassan, a 36-year-old teacher. "Gaddafi is contracting out the killings. I saw a two-year-old boy shot. These people don't care, they are not killing anyone from their own country, they are killing our people."
Tens of thousands had poured on to the streets to join funeral processions yesterday. At least 60 people were killed in clashes, doctors in Benghazi said. But Ali Faris, a US-based Libyan émigré with relatives in the city, said that at least one military battalion had thrown in its lot with protesters, leading to scenes of jubilation on Benghazi's streets. Mofta, a resident of Benghazi, told Al Jazeera the city had become a "war zone", with residents barricading the streets. He added that security forces continued to fire on protesters.
Some of the weekend's worst violence occurred on Saturday and one doctor in Benghazi told Al Jazeera he had seen more than 200 bodies.
"The situation is escalating alarmingly," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and Africa. "It looks like Libya's leader may have ordered his forces to put down the protests at any cost."
Eyewitnesses said the hospitals were being overwhelmed and were in desperate need of more blood. Doctors said many of those killed had been shot in the head and upper body, suggesting soldiers had aimed to kill.
"The outside world must realise that we are short of medicine, short of food, the situation is really, really bad," said Sayida, a lawyer. "We are all volunteering at the hospital. I went there yesterday. There were a lot of people hurt."
Foreign reporters have been barred from the country and the authorities have periodically blocked access to the internet. State television has reported only sparingly on the violence. But bloggers and activists have posted messages and video clips online, accusing the authorities of a full-scale massacre. "We ask you to intervene to rescue Libya. Libyans are dying, waiting for you," wrote one anonymous poster in comments translated by the Alive in Libya website.