An underground war has broken out in Libya between Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's secular regime and Islamic militants, threatening the stability of his 26-year rule with a series of shoot-outs and Algeria-style assassinations of secret policemen.
The old Italian colonial port of Benghazi has become the scene of ambushes and night-time gunfights. Last week, Islamic activists in the city claimed to have shot dead Lieutenant Colonel Jum'ah Al- Faydi, of Libyan intelligence. A week earlier, gunmen ambushed the head of a special unit set up to combat the religious opposition.
From the suburbs of Tripoli in the west, along the Mediterranean seaboard to Benghazi, Darnah and Al Bayda in the east, similar incidents have claimed dozens of lives through a simmering hot summer. In an ominous signal to Colonel Gaddafi, the trouble seems most intense in the eastern region, through which Libya's vital oil exports reach tankers bound for Europe.
In response, the regime's security services, trained by the old East German Stasi, have carried out mass arrests of Muslim activists and launched a violent campaign of repression, according to Western officials.
"The situation in Libya seems to be approaching a point of no return," said the Islamic human rights group Liberty for the Muslim World, in a statement this week. "Unless the Libyan regime undergoes essential reforms, the tide of violence will sweep the entire country," it said. "Libya is the third north African country after Egypt and Algeria to be driven into this dark tunnel by the unwise and confused policies of its rulers."
The group gave details of the Benghazi attacks and reported other clashes, including a siege in Darnah during which the security forces fired rockets at a fundamentalist hideout before storming the building. It listed 10 incidents which claimed the lives of 10 militants and nine security men.
The violence has drawn Colonel Gaddafi into conflict with members of the esoteric Senussi sect, which in pre- revolutionary Libya commanded adherents from the deserts to the coast for its ascetic, fundamentalist brand of Islam.
Secret police in Al Bayda are said to have arrested a prominent sect member, Abu Alraiqah, last month, together with 80 members of a powerful local tribe. Such measures pit the security apparatus against an influential, deep- rooted network in Libyan society whose charismatic founder united its warring tribes a century ago.
This clandestine struggle is a new, and doubtless alarming, source of pressure on Colonel Gaddafi, whose country is subject to United Nations sanctions for its refusal to extradite two intelligence agents sought on charges in connection with the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988.
Flights to and from the country are banned. Libya's delegate to the World Bank, Mohammed Bait Elmal, this week said the ban had cost his country over $10bn (pounds 6.4bn). He claimed that 685 Libyan children had died because of delays in getting medical supplies and that 13,500 patients had been unable to receive treatment abroad.
The UN also imposed restrictions on arms sales and diplomatic contacts. In addition, it in effect put Colonel Gaddafi's economy in a noose by requiring all payments for Libyan oil to be made through designated accounts. These could be frozen at any moment by further Security Council action.
The combination of economic decline, international isolation and domestic unrest poses the greatest threat to Colonel Gaddafi since he seized power in a coup in 1969. The new violence reflects a dangerous regional division in Libya. Foreign businessmen detect a possible fragmentation of the regime into competing tribal interest groups. Western intelligence sources say the pressure of sanctions has set off conflicts inside the vague and flexible Libyan power structure.
After the Islamic insurrection in Algeria and a fundamentalist guerrilla campaign against the Egyptian government, this violence will cause renewed concern in Europe. The question of Mediterranean security is high on the agenda for the Spanish presidency of the European Union, which has called a conference on the issue in Barcelona later this autumn.
Colonel Gaddafi has sent emissaries to hold secret talks with Western intelligence officials in Geneva in an effort to win concessions on the sanctions. He has gained none. Libya, like Iraq and Syria, is now living out the reality of the collapse of radical nationalism in the Arab world.