CAIRO – Libyan security forces killed at least 24 people in a violent crackdown on anti-regime demonstrations during a "Day of Anger" against strongman Moamer Kadhafi, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
The New York-based rights group, citing witnesses, said 24 protesters were killed and scores injured during Thursday's assaults on protests in two Libyan cities.
"The authorities should cease the use of lethal force unless absolutely necessary to protect lives and open an independent investigation into the lethal shootings," HRW said in a statement.
The regime of Kadhafi, who has been in power since 1969, vied to counter the swelling opposition movement with its own pro-government rallies in the capital Tripoli and other cities.
But the unrest has deepened as the opposition mobilises via Facebook and mobile phone messages, emulating protest movements across North Africa and the Middle East that have already brought down the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.
Geneva-based Human Rights Solidarity, citing witnesses, meanwhile said rooftop snipers in the city of Al-Baida east of Benghazi had killed 13 protesters and wounded dozens of others.
The Quryna newspaper, close to Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, cited official sources as putting the death toll in Al-Baida at two. It traced the unrest to a police shutdown of local shops that soon escalated.
The newspaper said several cars were torched and cited a "well-informed security source" as saying that a senior local security official had been sacked after the deaths in Al-Baida.
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The Al Youm and Al-Manara websites reported "violent clashes" in Benghazi, an opposition stronghold, adding that 35 people had been injured.
The Revolutionary Committees, the backbone of Kadhafi's regime, have warned they will not allow anti-regime protesters to "plunder the achievements of the people and threaten the safety of citizens and the country's stability".
Videos circulating on the Internet showed a building on fire and dozens of young Libyans apparently gathered in Al-Baida, chanting: "The people want to bring down the regime."
Ramadan Briki, chief editor of the Quryna newspaper in Benghazi, said gunfire rang out in several parts of the city on the third straight day of protests against Kadhafi.
"It is the first time that we have heard shooting in the city," Briki told AFP. "Given the difficulties, we are unable to know if there are fatalities or not."
Lawyers demonstrated in front of a courthouse in Benghazi to demand a constitution for the country.
And in Zentan, southwest of Tripoli, Quryna said demonstrators had set fire to the police station, the city's court, the posts of the internal security forces and the people's guard, and offices of the Revolutionary Committees.