BEYIDA, Libya — Forces loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi unleashed tank, mortar and anti-aircraft fire on protesters Thursday in murderous assaults on three rebellious cities outside the capital, witnesses and news reports said.
The onslaughts came as Gadhafi accused Osama bin Laden of instigating the nine-day rebellion seeking his overthrow, delivering a fresh diatribe over state-run television during which the Libyan leader admitted he was losing control of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli.
"In Zawiya, this is unbelievable," Gadhafi said. "People claim they are engineers and teachers and lecturers ,so they should have reasonable demands. But these people have no reasonable demands. Their demands are being dictated to them by bin Laden. People of Zawiya, your sons are being duped by bin Laden."
"Zawiya is slipping from our hands because your sons are listening to bin Laden," he ranted, adding a bizarre and ironic taunt later in the speech that "a real man doesn't use arms against innocent people."
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Gadhafi spoke after the Associated Press published a report quoting a witness saying by telephone in Zawiya that troops had fired automatic weapons and an anti-aircraft gun at a mosque where protesters, some armed with hunting rifles, had camped for days.
Immediately after Gadhafi finished, Zawiya residents called the Al Jazeera satellite channel from a mosque in which casualties were being treated for gunshot wounds. It wasn't clear whether it was the mosque that featured in the AP report.
Lutfi Abdullah, the imam, told Al Jazeera, "We don't want to hear Gadhafi, because he's crazy. As of now, there are 17 people killed in Zawiya, and many others injured. Gadhafi just said he would kill us all, so I urge all the countries to help us."
Zawiya, and two cities east of Tripoli, Misrata and Tajura, were under assault by pro-Gadhafi forces in what appeared to be an effort by the dictator to extend his control beyond Tripoli, where onslaughts by loyalists and African mercenaries seem to have crushed the uprising for now.
The uprising is the deadliest of the rebellions inspired across the Middle East by the largely peaceful revolts that ousted the former authoritarian rulers of Egypt and Tunisia. Gadhafi's forces are thought to have slaughtered hundreds, if not thousands, of people, triggering international condemnation and demands for a halt from the United States and other powers.
The insurrection erupted in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, and spread east and west along the coast of the Gulf of Sidra, where most of the 6.4 million people live. Most of the eastern region of Cyranaica is in the hands of rebellious officials, troops and armed civilians.
In Misrata, about 100 miles east of Tripoli, Gadhafi's forces encountered stiff resistance from civilians armed with guns abandoned by soldiers who fled, said Ahmed, 36, whom McClatchy reached by cell phone.
Tanks then deployed into the city, unleashing shellfire into the streets as terrified residents fled, said Ahmed, whose last name was withheld by McClatchy for his safety.
"I might die soon. I might die soon," Ahmed said, sobbing. "The tanks are here. I see them. I am speaking from a ditch and I can't move. A mortar just dropped nearby."
As he spoke, gunfire blasted in the background. People could be heard shouting "God is great" and saying a prayer that Muslims recite before they die.
The attackers were from Gadhafi's tribe, the Gadhadhfa, and were based in the Hamza Katiba, the local security compound, Ahmed said.
"He (Gadhafi) is killing the people. He is striking the people. What is this? They are not Arabs. They are not Muslims," Ahmed cried.
A huge explosion rang out that Ahmed said was an ammunition dump blowing up.
A resident of Tajura, about 15 miles southeast of Tripoli, said that a large force of pro-Gadhafi gunmen and African mercenaries was occupying the center of the town, firing at anyone who left his home.
Essam, whose last name was withheld by McClatchy for his safety, said he counted 21 bodies in the town center and outside a cardiac medical facility.
"Please, we need help. There are many people killed. Now 21, 21 people killed in the road," said Essam, who was reached around 2 a.m. local time. "Now all the people are in the house. We cannot go out. If anyone go out, they will be killed. We have three or four people sleeping together. We are very afraid. We have nothing to save us. It is very difficult. Obama, do anything. Kindly, please."
Protesters took over Tajura, the hometown of Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, on Sunday as thousands of anti-Gadhafi demonstrators poured into the center of Tripoli.
Gadhafi, whose voice was broadcast against a still photograph of him swathed in a brown cloak and brown headdress, said that bin Laden and his al Qaida followers instigated the uprising by giving hallucinogenic drugs to young people.
"You can find them in the mosques trying to pontificate and give your sons drugs. They should be put on trial," he said. "My brothers, you shouldn't listen to bin Laden and his followers. I am ordering every family. Go after your sons."
Bin Laden is widely thought to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal region, bordering Afghanistan.
In another bizarre claim, Gadhafi insisted that "the whole world is siding with us to fight international terrorism, including Europe and the West."
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he'd seek "a full range of options" aimed at halting the violence, and aides said those options would include U.S. and international sanctions. They said military intervention wasn't being considered.
Meanwhile, hitches arose in the evacuation of foreign nationals from Tripoli. A charted ferryboat carrying hundreds of U.S. citizens and anchored off Tripoli was prevented for a second day from departing for Malta because of high winds and heavy seas. Several airlines, including Germany's Lufthansa and Italy's Alitalia said they were suspending flights from the country for security reasons.
The State Department issued a warning to journalists who've entered Libya via its border on the east with Egypt, saying that senior Gadhafi regime officials have told U.S. diplomats "that the Libyan government now considered these reporters al Qaida collaborators."
"The Libyan government said that it was not responsible for the safety of these journalists, who risked immediate arrest on the full range of possible immigration charges," the department said in a statement.
It said the Libyan officials said that some members of CNN, BBC Arabic and Al Arabiya channels would be officially allowed in the country.
(Landay reported from Washington. Warren P. Strobel and Ameera Butt of the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star contributed to this report.)
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