TRIPOLI // Protests edged closer to the Libyan capital yesterday and new fighting erupted in the flashpoint city of Benghazi, as doctors and human rights workers said they feared a catastrophe, with hundreds dead.
Security forces clashed with anti-regime protesters in the Mediterranean city of Misrata, 200km from Tripoli. Demonstrators there were on the streets to show support for residents of Benghazi who have endured the brunt of the violence in eastern Libya. Mohammed al Mughrabi, a lawyer, said yesterday: "Lawyers are demonstrating outside the Northern Benghazi court; there are thousands here. We have called it Tahrir Square Two."
Libyan forces fired machineguns at mourners marching in a funeral on Saturday for 35 anti-government protesters killed in Benghazi, about 1,000km from the capital, a day after commandos and foreign mercenaries loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi pummelled demonstrators with rounds from assault rifles and other heavy weapons.
A doctor at one city hospital said his morgue had received at least 200 dead from six days of unrest, and his hospital, one of two in Libya's second-largest city, was out of supplies and could not treat more than 70 wounded from the attacks who needed attention. "I am crying," the doctor said. "Why is the world not listening?"
The violence in Libya appears likely to be the most brutal repression of anti-government protests that began with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Rebellion by Libyans frustrated with more than 40 years of Colonel Qaddafi's authoritarian rule has spread to more than a half dozen cities. Benghazi has been at the centre of unrest.
Speaking to Al Jazeera television on a patchy telephone line, a resident warned that the city was turning into a scene of "out-of-sight massacres".
"It feels like an open war zone between protesters and security forces," said Fathi Terbeel, a protest organiser. "Our numbers show that more than 200 people have been killed. God have mercy on them."
Obtaining reliable information about the chaotic situation is difficult. Journalists cannot work freely. Information about the uprising has come through telephone interviews, videos and messages posted online, and from opposition activists in exile.
The US-based Arbor Networks reported another internet service cut in Libya just before midnight on Saturday. The company says online traffic ceased about 2am on Saturday and was restored at reduced levels several hours later, only to be cut off again that night.
People in Libya also said they could no longer make international calls on their landline telephones.
Tom Porteous, the director of Human Rights Watch's London office, said: "We are very concerned that under the communication blackout that has fallen on Libya since yesterday. A human rights catastrophe is unfolding." The organisation said the death toll since Tuesday had reached at least 173.
In Al Baida, another city at the centre of the unrest east of Benghazi, "Islamist extremists" have taken hostage members of the security forces and civilians, a senior official said.
Justice minister Mustafa Abdeljalil started negotiations late on Saturday for the release of the hostages, the official said.
Amnesty International urged Mr Qaddafi to "immediately rein in his security forces amid reports of machineguns and other weapons being used against protesters and a spiralling death toll".
Libya has warned the European Union it will "suspend cooperation" in the fight against illegal immigration if the bloc does not stop encouraging pro-democracy protests, the EU presidency said yesterday.
When the ambassador of Hungary, which holds the EU chair until the end of June, was summoned by Tripoli on Thursday, it was "signalled" to Europe that "if the EU were to continue to encourage demonstrations, Libya would suspend its cooperation with the EU in the fight against illegal immigration".
The ambassador, Gergely Polner, said "other European representatives in Tripoli received the same message". Libyan authorities were expressing their "discontent" after an appeal launched on Wednesday evening by the EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, to allow "free expression" and listen to protests without precedent since Colonel Qaddafi took power in 1969.
Witnesses said smaller protests were staged on Saturday night on the outskirts of Tripoli, a stronghold of support for Colonel Qaddafi, but demonstrators were quickly dispersed by security men. Besides Tripoli and Benghazi, the US State Department in a travel warning to American citizens listed five other cities where there have been demonstrations.
* with Associated Press and Agence France-Presse