Forces loyal to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi were fighting last night to consolidate control over what appeared to be the rapidly diminishing parts of the country not yet overrun by protesters in rebellion against his 42-year rule.
Colonel Gaddafi's weakening grip on power came as a number of countries, including Britain, launched missions to rescue citizens stranded in Libya.
Opponents of the regime said they had taken the town of Misurata, outside the eastern area of the country already under rebel control, as the Libyan leader appeared increasingly confined to his redoubt in the capital. An audio statement reportedly posted on the internet by armed forces officers in Misurata proclaimed "our total support" for the protesters.
Cracks in the regime were underlined when the Quryna website reported that two air force pilots had baled out of their Russian-made Sukhoi jet and let it crash-land rather than carry out orders to bomb the country's second city of Benghazi, which is now in the hands of anti-Gaddafi protesters.
Their refusal to honour Gaddafi's defiant pledge in his television address on Tuesday night to defend the regime "to the last drop of blood" came as the Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, said that estimates of 1,000 dead since the uprising began were "credible", though he stressed that the information about casualties was incomplete.
One of the pilots who parachuted from the jet was identified as Ali Omar Gaddafi by a resident, who said he had seen the pilots and the wreckage of the jet outside the oil port of Breqa. That would make him a member of Muammar Gaddafi's own clan – a significant factor in Libya's heavily tribal society.
As thousands of Libyans celebrated the liberation of Benghazi, Hussam Ibrahim Sheri, director of its health centre, told Reuters that around 320 people had been killed in the city since the uprising began last week.
Armed Gaddafi supporters roaming the streets of Tripoli sought to maintain the Libyan leader's intimidatory grip on the capital where his palace and the radio station were guarded by loyalists and armed militiamen in vehicles, some masked. But even in Tripoli, an anti-Gaddafi activist told Associated Press that residents in many neighbourhoods had barricaded their streets with concrete blocks, metal barriers and rocks to keep out regime supporters.
Another told the agency: "Mercenaries are everywhere. You can't open a window or door. Snipers hunt people." Saying she had spent the previous night awake because of repeated gunfire, she added: "We are under siege, at the mercy of a man who is not a Muslim."
The Los Angeles Times reported other Tripoli residents as saying that some police had left their posts and that pro-government militias moving through residential streets were firing from their Toyota Land Cruisers. "We don't know who is in charge," said Najah Kablan, a teacher . "It is very frightening."
The claim of victory by protesters in Misurata came after several days of fighting with Gaddafi loyalists which began on 18 February and which Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor, said had claimed the lives of six people and wounded 200. He said residents were honking their car horns and flying the pre-Gaddafi flags of the Libyan monarchy.
In Benghazi, Mahmoud and Hamida had postponed their twelfth wedding anniversary celebrations because of the violence in their home city. But yesterday they decided to hold a modest lunch party. Mahmoud, an engineer said: "We thought we should make use of this day, when there was not much fighting, because we do not know what will happen in the next few days. We have two young children and if the situation gets worse we shall go." Mahmoud's uncle, Said Amar, added: "We have heard about these mercenaries [supposedly from sub-Saharan Africa] who have been shooting at cars and looting houses. Most of these foreigners have now left Benghazi but they caught a man from Chad who was trying to drive away with things he had taken from our people in a stolen car. We heard that he was killed by the crowd."
Many Britons have already left Libya but the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said about 540 remain, 300 of them in Tripoli, 70 in Benghazi and 170 in the desert. Of those, 100 Britons boarded a plane owned by BP which left Tripoli airport late last night. Mr Hague said more plane would be arriving in Tripoli to allow the depature of the remaining Britons
As the crisis sent the price of oil above $111 a barrel, its highest level for three years, a group of 60 Libyan intellectuals, judges, doctors and journalists sympathetic to the protesters drew up an agenda of demands for a post-Gaddafi Libya, including a national assembly composed of representatives from every region to decide on a transitional government and write a new constitution.
The Associated Press, reporting from the eastern city of Tobruk, quoted an officer allied with the protesters, Lt Col Omar Hamza, saying: "There is now an operating room for the militaries of all the liberated cities. They are trying to help the people in Tripoli to capture Gaddafi." A defence committee of local residents was guarding an anti-aircraft missile base outside Tobruk.
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