TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade-old rule appeared in increasing jeopardy Monday as anti-government protests reached the capital for the first time, leaving dozens dead at the hands of the security forces.
Several cities in the east appeared to be in the hands of the opposition as protests spread from Benghazi, cradle of a popular uprising that has rattled one of the Arab world’s most entrenched governments.
One of Gaddafi’s sons said the veteran leader would fight the revolt until “the last man standing.”
Protesters rallied in Tripoli’s streets, tribal and religious leaders spoke out against Gaddafi, and army units defected to the opposition in a revolt that has cost the lives of more than 200 people.
Protesters said they had taken control of Benghazi and other cities, with some analysts suggesting the country was heading for civil war.
“Libya is the most likely candidate for civil war because the government has lost control over part of its own territory,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
Output at one of the country’s oil fields was reported to have been stopped by a workers’ strike and some European oil companies withdrew expatriate workers and suspended operations. Most of the country’s oil fields are in the east, south of Benghazi.
Anti-government protests have also broken out in the central town of Ras Lanuf, the site of an oil refinery and petrochemical complex, Libya’s Quryna newspaper reported on its Internet site Monday.
In signs of disagreement inside Libya’s ruling elite, the justice minister resigned in protest at the “excessive use of violence” against protesters.
In India, Libya’s ambassador said he was resigning in protest at the violent crackdown.
A coalition of Libyan Muslim leaders told all Muslims it was their duty to rebel against the Libyan leadership because of its “bloody crimes against humanity.”
European nations watched developments in Libya with a growing sense of alarm after the government in Tripoli said it would suspend cooperation on stemming the flow of illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to the region, said events in Libya were appalling and unacceptable.
Al Jazeera television quoted medical sources as saying 61 people had been killed in the latest protests in Tripoli.
It said security forces were looting banks and other government institutions in Tripoli, and protesters had broken into several police stations and wrecked them.
A Reuters reporter in Tripoli said residents were stocking up on essential goods, apparently in anticipation of new clashes after nightfall. There were long queues at food shops and long lines of cars at fuel stations.
The building where the General People’s Congress, or parliament, meets in Tripoli was on fire Monday, as was a police station in one of the eastern suburbs.
Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi appeared on national television in an attempt both to threaten and to calm people, saying the army would enforce security at any price to put down one of the bloodiest revolts to convulse the Arab world.
“We will keep fighting until the last man standing, even to the last woman standing,” he said Sunday.
But people in Tripoli expressed anger at the speech.
A Libyan woman who gave her name as Salma, said: “The speech was very, very bad,”
“The speech was very disappointing because he threatened the Libyan people with killing, hunger and burning. He did not offer mercy for the souls of the martyrs who were killed.”
Another man said: “We were waiting for something good for us, the young people, to calm the anger but he did nothing.”
Gaddafi supporters were in central Tripoli’s Green Square on Monday, waving flags and carrying his portrait.
Saif al-Islam’s cajoling is unlikely to be enough to douse the anger unleashed after four decades of rule by Gaddafi — mirroring events in Egypt where a popular revolt overthrew the seemingly impregnable President Hosni Mubarak 10 days ago.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, protesters appeared to be largely in control after forcing troops and police to retreat to a compound. Government buildings were set ablaze and ransacked.
“Youths with weapons are in charge of the city. There are no security forces anywhere,” University of Benghazi professor Hanaa Elgallal told Al Jazeera International television.
Salahuddin Abdullah, a self-described protest organizer, said: “In Benghazi there is celebration and euphoria … The city is no longer under military control. It is completely under demonstrators’ control.”
There were reports that soldiers who refused to fire on civilians were executed by commanding officers in Benghazi.
“We have buried today 11 bodies of soldiers who refused to fire on civilians and were executed by Gaddafi officers.. The bodies were cut, heads in one side and legs in the other…it is a crime what is happening here,” said Elsanous Ali Eldorsi, a retired judge in Benghazi.
In Al Bayda, a town about 200 km (125 miles) from Benghazi, which was the scene of deadly clashes last week between protesters and security forces, a resident told Reuters protesters were also in command.
At least nine towns in the east, including Benghazi, Zuara and Zlitan, were under the control of protesters loyal to tribal groups, the president of the International Federation for Human Rights in France told Reuters.
Foreign nationals from European nations were being evacuated.
South Korea said hundreds of Libyans, some armed with knives and guns, attacked a South Korean-run construction site in Tripoli, injuring at least four foreign workers.
Human Rights Watch said at least 233 people had been killed in five days of violence, but opposition groups put the figure much higher. Most were in Benghazi, a region where Gaddafi’s grip has always been weaker than elsewhere in the oil-producing desert nation.
The Libyan uprising is one of a series of revolts that have raced like wildfire across the Arab world since December, toppling the long-time rulers of Tunisia and Egypt and threatening entrenched dynasties from Bahrain to Yemen.
Support for Gaddafi, the son of a herdsman who seized power in 1969, among Libya’s desert tribes was also waning. The leader of the Al-Zuwayya tribe in the east threatened to cut oil exports unless authorities halted “oppression of protesters.”
Libya is Africa’s fourth biggest oil exporter, producing 1.6 million barrels a day. The oil price jumped $3 to $89.50 a barrel for U.S. crude on fear the unrest could disrupt supplies.
A strike at Libya’s Nafoora oilfield was reported to have stopped production, according to Al Jazeera television. BP suspended operations for oil and gas drilling.