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Clashes, fires reported in Libya's capital

The government building known as People's Hall is one site reported ablaze. The violence comes hours after Kadafi's son airs a statement that security forces will fight 'to the last bullet' to put down the protesters. Rallies are held in Morocco, Yemen and Bahrain as a wave of unrest builds.

February 21, 2011|By Bob Drogin | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Cairo — Anti-government protests raged Monday for the first time in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, with unconfirmed media reports of pro-regime snipers firing into crowds, bloody clashes on the city's main square and fires blazing in key government buildings.

Al Jazeera reported that a fire was burning inside the People's Hall, a symbol of longtime strongman Moammar Kadafi's repressive regime. TV images showed demonstrators setting fires in the streets, but the size of the protests wasn't clear.

Snipers opened fire from rooftops on people protesting overnight, the Associated Press reported, citing an unidentified witness. The agency said gunmen driving in cars displaying photos of Kadafi also opened fire on protesters in the streets.

There was no immediate word on Kadafi's location. But after 41 years in office, his once-invincible hold on power appeared to be faltering.

The violence flared overnight, and witnesses said gunfire was heard across the city in the early morning. Government forces appeared to regain control of the central Green Square by midday Monday, according to the BBC.

Citing witnesses in Tripoli, the network said protesters had besieged the building that houses state-run TV and forced at least one channel off the air.

The reports from the capital came hours after Kadafi's son acknowledged in comments broadcast early Monday that protesters had seized control of Benghazi -- the country's second-largest city -- and several eastern towns. But he vowed that security forces would fight "to the last bullet" against efforts to end his father's four decades in power.

Human-rights groups said the death toll in Libya had exceeded 200 after six days of unrest. Police and government-hired mercenaries Sunday shot at people gathered to mourn three dozen activists killed by police the previous day in Benghazi, according to video and online accounts trickling out of Libya. There were reports of government snipers firing on demonstrators from rooftops there as well.

The day's events shook Kadafi, a mercurial leader who was an implacable foe of the United States until he began to make overtures to the West in 2003. The oil-rich nation has been closed to outsiders and authorities have restricted Internet and phone access.

Elsewhere, the tide of protest across the Middle East and North Africa swelled, from Morocco on the Mediterranean to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, both ruled by pro-Western leaders. In Yemen, some legislators and regional officials quit the ruling party because of a crackdown on protests by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In a sign of the United States' growing concern, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began a weeklong trip for talks with U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Kadafi's son Seif Islam, appearing after midnight on state television, warned of an impending civil war and said the country had reached "a critical crossroads." He denied rumors that his father had fled the country, saying only that Kadafi was still in Libya.

The younger Kadafi said the military had made mistakes in confronting demonstrators but would remain loyal. He blamed the unrest on foreigners, Islamists and criminals whom he accused of plunging the country into civil war and threatening to destroy its oil wealth.

Demonstrators had "formed a government" in Benghazi and other eastern towns, he said, but he vowed that the government would "fight until the last man … the last bullet" to crush the revolt.

He offered to engage dissidents in a "historic national initiative." It was not clear when the remarks were recorded.

Protesters in the capital, Tripoli, contacted by Al Jazeera news channel and the BBC said early Monday that security forces seemed to be retreating from some parts of the city and that demonstrations there were growing. Addressing the elder Kadafi, protesters chanted: "Where are you? Come out if you're a man!"

Khaled Mattawa, a poet who is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said relatives in Tripoli had told him that at about midnight protesters converging from several directions on the city center were scattered by live fire.

In comments earlier, analyst Amr Chobaki of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo said that Kadafi controlled Tripoli but had lost Benghazi and much of the east to the protesters.

"It puts him in a very bad situation," Chobaki said.

Human Rights Watch said Sunday that, based on information from hospital sources, the death toll was at least 233. Amnesty International accused Kadafi of trying to suppress the protests "virtually at any cost."

In Benghazi and other towns, according to accounts on social-networking websites, demonstrators chanted, "The people demand the removal of the regime!" — the same chants that rallied protesters in successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

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