Despite pouring rain, protesters gather outside the Benghazi courthouse,… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Ras Ajdir, Tunisia — Chaos gripped the Libyan capital and its environs Friday as the central government's authority continued to crumble in the western half of a nation already split in two.
Thousands of people poured into the streets of Tripoli after Friday prayers in defiance of strongman Moammar Kadafi, who has vowed to fight his opponents until the very end. They braved the bullets of militiamen loyal to Kadafi who reportedly opened fire on demonstrators.
One witness reached by telephone in Tripoli said people marched from mosques to Green Square in the heart of the capital, with the support of at least some members of the security forces.
"The military police are with us," said Mohammad Khalil, 31, a Tripoli businessman. "People marching in the demonstrations heard gunfire and are sure that people have been killed."
Al Jazeera television cited sources as saying that dozens of people had been killed in the protests, though Libyan state television denied that.
Demonstrations unfolded in several Tripoli neighborhoods. In one, pro-regime gunmen in pickup trucks fired automatic weapons outside a crowded mosque after Friday afternoon prayers, a resident said by telephone.
"They came and shot in the air to make sure everyone went home," said the resident, who declined to be identified. "They didn't shoot anybody. They tried to scare us. But we were very angry because they were shooting near the mosque."
Residents of Tripoli and those fleeing the capital for Tunisia said prices for drinking water and gasoline had tripled, businesses and shops had been shuttered and procuring basic supplies had become a challenge. Many people inclined to demonstrate Friday instead stayed inside.
"People are not allowed to gather or people will shoot them," said a 33-year-old resident of the Andalous district of Tripoli who was reached by phone. "All the shops are closed. People are not going to work. People are horrified."
The White House on Friday imposed sanctions on Libya's government, with President Obama signing an executive order freezing Libyan assets in the U.S. and blocking all transactions with specific individuals, including government officials and Kadafi family members. The administration also suspended operations at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
U.S. officials had avoided criticism of Kadafi while hundreds of Americans and other foreigners were held up for nearly three days at a Tripoli ferry terminal waiting for rough weather to pass. Washington sharpened its language after the ferry departed for Malta on Friday afternoon.
"It's clear that Col. Kadafi has lost the confidence of his people," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at a news conference. "He is overseeing brutal treatment of his people, fatal violence against his own people, and his legitimacy has been reduced to zero in the eyes of his people."
At the United Nations, Britain and France presented the 15-member Security Council with a resolution calling for economic sanctions, political isolation of the regime and an investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague into allegations that Kadafi's forces had committed crimes against humanity.
The U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva echoed the call for an international probe and voted to recommend that Libya be expelled from its ranks.
Many of the nation's diplomats, officials and soldiers have already turned against Kadafi. The cost of the uprising has been high. More than 600 people have died, according to human rights organizations. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Friday that it estimated at least 1,000 had died. The unrest has driven up global energy prices and frozen the Libyan economy.
But there was no sign Kadafi was ready to buckle. As dusk settled, he appeared on television addressing a crowd at Green Square, the center of the capital's Italian-built belle epoque quarter. His remarks, laced with threatening, apocalyptic imagery, were described as a live speech.
"If needed, the arsenals will be open to arm all the Libyan people, all the Libyan tribes," he said. "Libya will be red with fire; it will turn into ashes."
And he urged Libyans to celebrate. "Dance, sing and stay up," he said. "Dance, sing and celebrate."
Foreign media have been all but barred from traveling to Libya, although many journalists have gone without permission into eastern Libya, now under the control of the opposition. A few correspondents were flown in to Tripoli on Friday as guests of Kadafi's son Seif Islam, who acknowledged that some key population centers had fallen to the opposition.
"We are dealing with terrorists," Reuters quoted him as saying. "The army decided not to attack to give the terrorists a chance to negotiate."
Scores have died in western cities such as Zawiya, where fighting continued to rage Friday, according to the growing flood of mostly Egyptian workers and others arriving at the Ras Ajdir crossing at the border with Tunisia.