By MAGGIE MICHAEL and SARAH EL DEEB
CAIRO — Libyan security forces waged an escalating crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of leader Moammar Gadhafi in several eastern cities. In the country’s second largest city, a stream of 35 bodies was brought to one hospital Friday, reportedly of protesters shot while trying to march on one of Gadhafi’s residences, a doctor said.
The deaths took place in the city of Benghazi after funerals for more than a dozen protesters shot to death a day earlier. The doctor in Benghazi’s al-Jalaa hospital said survivors of Friday’s clashes said that after the burials, protesters tried to rally outside the Katiba, a military compound where Ghadafi stays when he visits.
Security forces inside the compound opened fire on protesters as they approach, the doctor said. Dead and wounded began flowing into the hospital’s emergency ward in the afternoon, in groups of five or six, many with bullet wounds to the head or chest. He said he counted 35 bodies in an ICU unit used as a temporary morgue.
The doctor, reached by phone from Cairo, spoke on condition his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
Several dozen have reportedly been killed already in the unprecedented wave of protests that have erupted the past four days as the pro-democracy movement that has swept up the Middle East reached one of the region’s most closed nations. Gadhafi has ruled virtually unquestioned since 1969.
Libya is oil-rich, but the gap between its haves and have-nots is wide, and the protests have flared hardest in the more impoverished eastern parts of the country, the site of anti-government agitation in the past. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates about one-third of Libyans live in poverty, and U.S. diplomats have said in newly leaked memos that Gadhafi’s regime seems to neglect the east intentionally, letting unemployment and poverty rise to weaken opponents there.
“This alarming rise in the death toll, and the reported nature of the victims’ injuries, strongly suggests that security forces are permitted use of lethal force against unarmed protesters calling for political change,” Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said of the Benghazi bloodshed.
Information is tightly controlled in Libya, where journalists cannot work freely and many citizens fear the powerful security and intelligence services. The Internet was reportedly down in many parts of eastern Libya, including Benghazi.
Witnesses and residents of several cities gave accounts of events Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. In many cases, separate people gave similar reports, but their accounts could not be independently confirmed.
At least five cities of eastern Libya have seen protests and clashes in recent days. In one of them, Beyida, a hospital official said Friday that the bodies of at least 23 protesters slain over the past 48 hours were at his facility, which was treating about 500 wounded — some in the parking lot for lack of beds. Another witness reported 26 protesters buried in Beyida on Thursday and early Friday.
“We need doctors, medicine and everything,” the hospital official said.
Forces from the military’s elite Khamis Brigade moved into Benghazi, Beyida and several other cities, residents said. They were accompanied by militias that seemed to include foreign mercenaries, residents said. Several witnesses reported French-speaking fighters, believed to be Tunisians or sub-Saharan Africans, among militiamen wearing blue uniforms and yellow helmets.
The Khamis Brigade is led by Gadhafi’s youngest son Khamis Gadhafi, and U.S. diplomats in leaked memos have called it “the most well-trained and well-equipped force in the Libyan military.” The witnesses’ reports that it had been deployed could not be independently confirmed.
In Benghazi, crowds marched in a funeral in the morning for protesters killed the previous day, said Gamal Bandour, a judge in the city. He put the number buried at 15, though a pro-government news website put Thursday’s toll at 14. After the services, some of the protesters began burning government buildings and police stations. Some clashed with police outside the city’s main security headquarters.
A 27-year-old man named Ayman was killed by gunfire at the clashes, his father Muftah told AP. “He was on his way home from his farm. As he passed near the security headquarters, he got a stray bullet in the head,” Muftah said, speaking on condition he and his son’s full names not be used. “He was not a protester but he got what the other youth got. ... There was excessive use of force.”
The attempted protest outside Gadhafi’s residence began in the early afternoon. The Libyan leader was not believed to be in the city.
Around 3 p.m., dead and wounded began arriving at al-Jalaa hospital, said the doctor there. “There were rows and rows of injured people trying to make it in,” he said. At least six teams of medics were trying to treat the influx, moving the dead in to an empty ICU unit temporarily. The doctor said he could not keep track of wounded.
But he said he counted 35 bodies of the dead, most of them of men under 30 years old. Some of the bodies had since been taken away by angry relatives. The rest were taken the morgue, but many relatives were protesting outside it, threatening to storm the facility to get their slain loved ones. Separately, a lawyer who was at the hospital said he saw a similar number of dead.
By night fall, youth residents of Benghazi took to the streets, wielding swords and sticks to protect their homes after rumors circulated that thugs were coming to attack, the lawyer said.
Meanwhile, other protesters have started camping out in front of Benghazi’s court building.
“There are lawyers, judges, men and some women here, demanding the ouster of Gadhafi. Forty-two years of dictatorship are enough,” said one of them, Nizar Jebail, owner of an advertising company, speaking to The Associated Press by telephone. He said he wants not just reforms, “but freedom and equality.”
One of Ghadafi’s sons, al-Saadi, an 37-year-old army colonel, announced on local radio Thursday that he had arrived in Benghazi, sent by his father to help launch development projects, the lawyer said. On Friday morning, al-Saadi, again spoke on the radio to express condolences for those killed the day before.
In Beyida, residents said troop reinforcements entered the city along with militiamen. The soldiers appeared to keep their distance, at times using snipers to try to disperse protesters, while militiamen led the direct assault on protesters with knives and automatic weapons, residents said.
Several witnesses said local police, who belong to the same tribe as the residents, joined the demonstrators to fight the militias, driving them out of many neighborhoods. The protesters demolished a military air base runway with bulldozers and set fire to police stations.
“These mercenaries are now hiding in the forests. We hear the gunshots all the time,” one witness said. “We don’t have water, we don’t have electricity.” Another said protesters were chanting, “The people want the ouster of the colonel,” a reference to Gadhafi.
New videos from Beyida showed bloodstained bodies of the dead in a morgue, protesters torching a municipal building and demolishing a statue for the Green Book, which outlines Gadhafi’s “authority of the people.” Protesters tore down a pro-Gadhafi billboard.
Two militiamen were captured by the protesters and were hanged in a square in the city after they reportedly opened fire on protesters, said one witness. A Switzerland-based Libyan opposition activist, Fathi al-Warfali, said he had reports of protesters lynching 11 captured mercenaries in Beyida, Benghazi and the town of Darnah on Friday.
In Zentan, a female resident said militiamen attacked the city after protesters set fire to police stations and sprayed graffiti on the walls that read: “Down with Gadhafi.” Officials with loudspeakers offered money for residents to stop protesting, but then cut off electricity and water, the woman said, describing how she was standing of top of her building, watching the events.
The government made an apparent gesture aimed at easing protests. The news website Quryna, which has ties to Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, another of the leader’s sons, said Friday that the country’s national congress has halted its session indefinitely and said many state executives will be replaced when it returns.
In addition to replacing top officials, it will endorse reforms to decentralize and restructure the government, it said.
The site also said 1,000 inmates at a prison in Benghazi attacked guards and escaped. Three of them were shot dead by guards.
Residents of Tripoli, where small protests took place in central districts, said that they received a text message to their cell phones threatening people “who dare to violate the four red lines” which include Gadhafi himself, national security, oil and Libyan territory, said one woman who received the message.
But on Friday evening, a group of more than 100 people gathered in a Tripoli district chanting in support of the Benghazi protesters, “Libya East and West are same,” said Rahma, a 21-year old resident of Tripoli who spoke on condition her full name not be used.
She said the group was confronted by riot police carrying shields, and protesters pelted them with rocks. The police fired in the air, and the protesters scattered. Rahma said she saw at least 3 people arrested.
Earlier a newspaper regarded as a Gadhafi mouthpiece had threatened demonstrators.
“Whoever tries to violate them or touch them will be committing suicide and playing with fire,” an editorial in the Az-Zahf Al-Akhdar, or the Green March, newspaper said on Thursday.