CAIRO, Egypt — Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, fell Sunday after a crack army unit defected to the opposition and clashes spread to the capital, Tripoli, as an uprising against Moammar Gadhafi appeared to threaten the Middle East’s longest ruling dictator’s 42-year grip on power, residents and news reports said.
Gadhafi’s youngest son, Saif Gadhafi, seemed to acknowledge in a rambling speech on state-run television that Benghazi and the nearby eastern city of Baida were no longer under government control.
“At this moment in time, tanks are driven about by civilians. In Baida, you have machine guns right in the middle of the city. Many arms have been stolen,” said Saif Gadhafi, who called the insurrection “a plot against Libya.”
He appealed for calm, promising to institute democratic reforms. But in a dire warning suggesting that the regime was digging in for a bloody fight for survival, he said that unless its proposals are accepted, “be prepared for civil war.”
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The revolt in the oil-rich nation of 6.4 million represented a major escalation in the instability ignited across the Middle East when a jobless Tunisian man desperate to feed his family set himself afire in December. That act triggered the mostly peaceful uprisings that ousted former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Pro-reform protesters inspired by those revolutions clashed on Sunday with security forces in Tehran and other Iranian cities, marched in Morocco, Algeria and Iraq, pressed a peaceful occupation of the Bahraini capital’s main square and staged new demonstrations in Yemen.
The upheavals pose the most serious foreign policy challenge of President Barack Obama’s two years in office, upending decades-old U.S. policies geared to ensuring access to the region’s petroleum supplies by favoring its kings and dictators over their people’s rights, and safeguarding an alliance with Israel.
At least 233 people have died and hundreds have been injured in Benghazi alone since the uprising erupted on Wednesday, said New York-based Human Rights Watch, quoting unidentified hospital sources.
A doctor and a resident reached by telephone in the seaside city of 1 million told McClatchy that between 50 and 70 people died in street battles on Sunday, and they charged that more than 200 were massacred a day earlier by troops and African mercenaries loyal to Gadhafi.
Verifying developments in Libya was difficult because of restrictions imposed by the Gadhafi regime on Internet access and outgoing telephone calls. But the United States said it had “multiple credible reports” that hundreds of people had been killed and injured in the 5-day-old insurrection.
The insurrection in Libya began Wednesday in Benghazi with the arrest of a prominent human rights lawyer and spread to other cities and towns spanning the eastern coast of the Gulf of Sidra to the Egyptian border, as well as to western areas.
On Sunday evening, anti-government protests erupted in Tripoli, the seat of Gadhafi’s power, as thousands of people converged on the city’s Green Square, defying gunfire from security forces and African mercenaries, according to numerous news reports and a resident reached by telephone.
The resident, who gave his name only as Abdalla, said he witnessed two men killed in front of him, one shot in the neck, the other through the head.
Violence broke out elsewhere in Tripoli, he said, as demonstrators burned police stations, the headquarters of the city’s governing revolutionary committee and other symbols of the Gadhafi regime, including posters of the dictator and copies of his Green Book, the political treatise he published in 1975.
Gadhafi seized power in bloodless 1969 coup and imposed on the nation of 6.4 million one of the region’s most repressive regimes, with the formation of independent political parties or trade unions punishable by death and torture routine in its prisons, according to State Department human rights reports.
The clashes in Benghazi ended late Sunday night, residents reached by telephone said, after the Lighting Bolts, an army commando force, defected to citizens armed with weapons seized from army bases. Together, they overran the main security compound, the Katiba El Fadil Bu Omar, a complex that includes one of Gadhafi’s residences.
“The special forces have defected and attacked Gadhafi’s barracks,” said Muftah, a local journalist who studied in South Carolina. “Benghazi is free.”
Thousands of people poured into the city’s streets to celebrate, he said, confirming that anti-regime forces had captured large amounts of weapons and were driving several captured tanks around.
But with no identifiable leader or group in command and so much weaponry loose, Muftah, whose last name McClatchy withheld for security reasons, expressed concern that anarchy could quickly replace the jubilation.
“It is harmless so far, but let's hope it doesn’t develop into something nasty,” he said. “People are forming committees to guard neighborhoods.”
Braikah, the doctor, said that lawyers, writers, doctors and other public figures were trying to figure out how to ensure that the movement proceeded in a peaceful, orderly way. She asked that her last name be withheld for her security.
Muftah said a surgeon with whom he is friends told him that 70 people were killed in fighting on Sunday that erupted when pro-Gadhafi forces in the main security compound opened fire with heavy machineguns at a funeral procession for one of those killed the day before.
Braikah put Sunday’s toll at 50. Human Rights Watch quoted sources at the city’s three main hospitals as saying 60 were killed. Accounts provided to the organization by witnesses confirmed that a funeral procession was hit by indiscriminate gunfire as it passed by the Katiba El Fadil Bu Omar complex.
Several videos posted on YouTube appeared to verify the reports of heavy fighting. In one, thousands of people cheer men armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers riding in a white pickup. The bloodied bodies of what were said to be two African mercenaries were lashed to the vehicle’s hood.
Video posted on several websites shows a bloodied man described as an African mercenary being detained by a group of protestors. He tells them "I swear by God these were orders," and they keep asking "orders from who?" He answers "orders from the officers." Some of the men begin punching and picking him, and he falls to the ground. Others protect him and shout "no!"
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that the United States was “gravely concerned with disturbing reports and images coming out of Libya. We are working to ascertain the facts, but we have received multiple credible reports that hundreds of people have been killed and injured in several days of unrest.”
“We have raised to a number of Libyan officials, including Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, our strong objections to the use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators,” Crowley said in a statement. “We reiterated to Libyan officials the importance of universal rights, including freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Libyan officials have stated their commitment to protecting and safeguarding the right of peaceful protest. We call upon the Libyan government uphold that commitment.”
In Iran, thousands responded to opposition leaders’ calls to take to the streets to mark a week since two protesters were killed in demonstrations staged to support the uprisings that drove former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.
Demonstrators clashed with security forces on Valiasr Street, the capital’s main thoroughfare, and other areas parts of the city, the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said, quoting telephone interviews with witnesses.
Large deployments of baton-swinging police, some mounted on motorbikes, charged the protesters at Tehran’s Enghelab Square, Valiasr Street and other major intersections, one witness told McClatchy.
In a video posted on an Iranian blogger’s Facebook site, thousands of protesters are heard shouting “Mubarak, Ben Ali, it’s time for Seyed Ali,” a call for the ouster of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
There were unconfirmed reports of security forces firing live ammunition, and an unknown numbers of casualties and arrests.
Press TV, the state-run English-language satellite news channel, reported that Faezah Hashemi, the daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the government’s leading critic within the clerical leadership, was briefly detained by police during the protest but was later released.
The human rights group and posts by Iranian bloggers on the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter also spoke of clashes in the cities of Shiraz, Hamedan, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Rasht.
The protests were staged in defiance of stern government warnings, with a state news service claiming that protesters were in danger of being shot by armed infiltrators.
(Landay reported from Washington, and McClatchy special correspondent Naggar and Hannah Allam reported from Cairo. Bolstad contributed from Washington, Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Manama, Bahrain, McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed from Baghdad, and McClatchy special correspondent Nasser Arrabyee contributed from Sanaa, Yemen.)