x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'At least 200 dead' in Benghazi in Libyan protests

Commandos, foreign mercenaries and Qadafi loyalists attacked demonstrators in Benghazi with knives, assault rifles and heavy weapons, according to witnesses.

CAIRO // A doctor says Muammer Qaddafi's forces have killed at least 200 protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi as it tries to crush a rebellion that has spread to more than half a dozen cities across the country.

Witnesses told the Associated Press that a mix of special commandos, foreign mercenaries and Qaddafi loyalists attacked demonstrators in Benghazi on Saturday with knives, assault rifles and heavy weapons. Those protesters were burying 35 marchers who were slain Friday by government forces.

Benghazi has been at the centre of a six-day revolt by Libyans inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and frustrated by Qaddafi's more than 40 years of authoritarian rule.

The Benghazi doctor said his hospital, one of two in Libya's second-largest city, is out of supplies and cannot treat tye more than 70 wounded who were hit in the attacks and need attention.

"I am crying," the doctor said. "Why is the world not listening?"

The doctor spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, as did several other witnesses in Libya.

Protesters remain defiant despite facing repeated assaults, and some opposition leaders in exile claim that several towns in the nation's eastern provinces are now under control of forces which are no longer loyal to Gadhafi.

Jamal Eddin Mohammed, 53, a resident of Benghazi, said thousands are marching toward the city's cemetery to bury at least a dozen protesters. The march, he said, would pass by Qaddafi's residential palace and the regime's local security headquarters.

Mr Mohammed said protesters feared more clashes with the government.

"Everything is behind that [Qaddafi] compound; hidden behind wall after wall. The doors open and close and soldiers and tanks just come out, always as a surprise, and mostly after dark," he said.

The mourners were chanting: "The people demand the departure of the regime," which became a mantra for protesters in Egypt and Tunisia.

Mohammed Abdullah, an exiled leader of the Libyan Salvation Front, said government troops in parts of Benghazi, Beyida and Tobruk have severed ties with their command in Tripoli. Protests also have spread to outside the southern city of Zentan and west to Mesrata, the third-biggest city in Libya.

Getting concrete details about Libya's increasingly chaotic situation has been difficult because journalists cannot work freely inside the country. Information about the uprising has come through telephone interviews, along with videos and messages posted online, and through opposition activists in exile.

The US-based Arbor Networks reported another internet service outage in Libya just before midnight Saturday night. The company says online traffic ceased in Libya about 2am Saturday, was restored at reduced levels several hours later, only to be cut off again that night.

People in Libya also said they can no longer make telephone calls on their land lines.

Before Saturday's violence, Human Rights Watch estimated at least 84 people had been killed in anti-Qaddafi unrest.

Mr Abdullah said smaller protests were staged Saturday night on the outskirts of the capital, 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 that have seen demonstrations

In Al Baida, another city at the centre of the unrest, "Islamist extremists" have taken hostage members of the security forces and civilians, a senior Libyan official told AFP.

Justice minister Mustafa Abdeljalil started negotiations late on Saturday for the release of the hostages, he said. "But we will not negotiate over Libya's integrity under any circumstances."

Britain has deplored what it branded a "horrifying" crackdown, and US President Barack Obama has condemned the use of violence against peaceful protesters in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen as unrest sweeps the Middle East.

Austria announced it was sending a military plane to Malta in readiness to evacuate European citizens from Libya or other Arab countries, after Washington cautioned US citizens to stay away from eastern Libya.

Colonel Qaddafi, 68, is the longest-serving leader in the Arab world. He has made no public comment on the unprecedented challenge to his four-decade regime, part of a region-wide wave of popular uprisings that have already toppled the regimes in Libya's neighbours Tunisia and Egypt.

Supporters of the Libyan uprising also demonstrated in Switzerland and in Washington on Saturday, waving flags and burning Colonel Qaddafi's photo.