Human rights groups say casualties in Libya have escalated sharply after government troops opened fire with machine guns on demonstrators in the country's second city, Benghazi. An unknown number of people are said to have been killed, including children.
At least 104 people have died in Libya since the outbreak of protests against President Muammar Qaddafi on February 16, according to Human Rights Watch. Some estimates put the death toll closer to 200.
Reports of the escalating death toll coincided with unconfirmed witness accounts of troops firing on demonstrators with machine guns and large-caliber weapons in Benghazi, Libya's second city on Saturday, killing at least 20.
"Dozens were killed ... We are in the midst of a massacre here," Reuters quoted a witness as saying. The man said he had helped take victims to hospital in Benghazi.
Snipers are said to have shot from the roofs of buildings, prompting scenes of chaos and panic among demonstrators, some of whom fought back. Troops reportedly withdrew to a government compound in the center of Benghazi, around 1,000 from the capital Tripoli, from where, witnesses said, they fired on mourners burying those killed in previous demonstrations.
No More Blood
Medical staff at a local hospital are reported to have run out of blood and supplies after 150 casualties from Saturday's shootings had been admitted. The BBC reported that 22 of the injured had died.
The accounts are hard to verify because Libya is effectively closed to the international media. But graphic video footage apparently showing the bloody and panicked aftermath of shootings during street disturbances has been posted on YouTube:
The fierce crackdown follows the worst outbreak of unrest in Gaddafi's 42-year rule. The president's opponents have used social media to call for popular protests inspired by those that unseated long-serving leaders in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
Separate footage on YouTube purportedly shows an anti-government rally in Benghazi on February 17, in which crowds can be heard chanting anti-regime slogans, including "We want freedom and social justice".
Muslim Leaders: Stop The Killing
Despite the death toll, demonstrators were reported to have gathered again on Sunday at a court building in Benghazi, AP reported, citing witnesses.
The bloodshed prompted about 50 Libyan Muslim religious leaders to issue an appeal, for the security forces to stop the killing.
"This is an urgent appeal from religious scholars (faqihs and Sufi sheikhs), intellectuals, and clan elders from Tripoli, Bani Walid, Zintan, Jadu, Msalata, Misrata, Zawiah, and other towns and villages of the western area," the appeal said, according to Reuters. "We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him)... Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!"
Most of the unrest has centered on Benghazi and nearby areas. In contrast, there have been few reports of disturbances in Tripoli, although social networks sites referred to minor clashes there and in Nalut, to the west.
Some analysts have suggested that a nationwide revolt of the type that convulsed Egypt and Tunisia is unlikely in Libya because Qaddafi’s regime has been able to use the country's oil wealth to ease social problems.
written by Robert Tait with contributions from agency reports