Militias loyal to Muammer Gaddafi, the embattled Libyan leader, opened fire at unarmed demonstrators opposed to his rule as they streamed out of mosques in Tripoli, the capital and regime’s last stronghold after the fall of other major cities to the opposition.
Defiant protesters chanting slogans against Col Gaddafi tried to march to Green Square in the city centre after Friday prayers, but they were met with gunfire, sometimes from snipers stationed on rooftops.
“People are being slaughtered,” shouted Samir, a resident of the city contacted by phone. “They are killing civilians walking on the streets. We have already lost six of our friends here in the Souk al Jouma district.”
Col Gaddafi addressed supporters, vowing defiantly on Friday to triumph over his enemies, and vigorously urging his backers to protect the Libyan nation and its petroleum interests.
Speaking from the old city ramparts looking over Green Square, Col Gaddafi, wearing a winter jacket and a hunter’s cap that covered his ears, said when necessary he would open Libya’s arsenals of guns to the tribes.
“We can crush any enemy. We can crush it with the people’s will. The people are armed and when necessary, we will open arsenals to arm all the Libyan people and all Libyan tribes,” said Col Gaddafi.
A protester quoted by the Associated Press news agency said that gunmen fired a hail of bullets at thousands trying to march from Tajoura, in the east of the city, to Green Square.
“We can’t see where it is coming from. They don’t want to stop,” he said. A man next to him was felled by a bullet in the neck.
There were also reports of gunfire in Green Square as militiamen fired into the air to disperse protesters coming out of mosques.
At least six people were reported killed in Janzour, an affluent area on the western outskirts of Tripoli, where hundreds of demonstrators at the Slatnah mosque marched, chanting anti-regime slogans.
Youssef, a demonstrator, told the Financial Times that he was in a protest of about 100 people in Janzour and that regime forces opened fire on them after having first said they could demonstrate if they stood still and did not march.
“We listened to them. We had a peaceful demonstration, then they just all of a sudden opened fire on us,” he said, adding that five people were injured.
Many people marched from a town called Tajoura, about 20km east of Tripoli, but they were met by security forces and couldn’t get into the centre of town. In Tripoli itself residents came out after afternoon prayers but they were also met by security forces and clashes broke out in the centre of the city and have been continuing.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. Many people have died and there’s too much army and too much police,” said one resident of Tripoli.
Having lost huge swaths of his country, Col Gaddafi is now desperate to hold on to Tripoli, home to 2m people, or a third of the population of the north African nation. The city is the centre of the shrinking circle of territory still under the control of the Libyan leader.
The entire eastern region and parts of western Libya near the border with Tunisia have already slipped from his grip after ten days of a leaderless popular uprising inspired by the revolts which ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.
On Friday, a heavy security presence was deployed around mosques to prevent opposition supporters from gathering. Heavily armed young men wearing green arm bands, a sign of loyalty to the regime, were at checkpoints on many streets where they stopped and searched cars.
In another effort to defuse popular anger, Col Gaddafi ordered massive cash handouts including wage increases, food subsidies and allowances, state television reported.
It said each family would receive 500 Libyan dinars ($400) to help cover increased food costs, and that wages for some categories of public sector workers would increase by 150 per cent.
Text messages urging protesters in Tripoli to rise up against Col Gaddafi on the “Friday of Victory” had been circulating on mobile phones since Thursday.
The regime had used force to quell protests in the capital earlier this week, leaving dozens dead. Mercenaries, said to be brought in from sub-Saharan Africa and from other countries, have been fighting alongside the pro-Gaddafi forces.
Libya has a small regular army, and many of its units have already defected to the opposition which has been benefiting from an influx of heavy and light arms.
Col Gaddafi, who has vowed to go down fighting, is relying on special battalions loyal to his sons, and on the mercenaries who have been seen during clashes in different parts of the country.
Speaking from Misurata, 200 kilometres east of Tripoli, Salem Abu Haggar, a television director said the local population had captured 13 mercenaries fighting alongside pro-regime forces, including Mauritanians, Algerians and Palestinians.
Mr Haggar said there was fighting on Friday just outside the city as forces loyal to Khamis, a son of Col Gaddafi, tried to recapture an airbase that had fallen to the people who have been supported by local army units.
“The army forces in the city have all joined us and so have the officers at the air academy on the base,” he said. “Only remnants of the mercenaries are now fighting. We now have tanks, artillery and rocket propelled grenades launchers. Misurata is now totally free.”
Meanwhile as concerns over the country’s oil supplies grow, the Libyan leader’s son Seif al-Islam, said the government would never resort to destroying Libya’s oil wealth.
“We will never demolish the sources of oil. They belong to the people,” Mr Seif said in an interview translated from English into Turkish on the CNN-Turk website.
He said the Gaddafi family had no intention of fleeing Libya, and the government was in control of the west, south and centre of the country.
“We have plans A, B and C. Plan A is to live and die in Libya. Plan B is to live and die in Libya. Plan C is to live and die in Libya,” Mr Seif said.
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