CAIRO — The faltering government of the Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi struck back at mounting protests against his 40-year rule, as helicopters and warplanes besieged parts of the capital Monday, according to witnesses and news reports from Tripoli.
By Monday afternoon, a witness saw armed militiamen firing on protesters who were clashing with riot police. As a group of protesters and the police faced off in a neighborhood near Green Square, in the center of the capital, ten or so Toyota pickup trucks carrying more than 20 men — many of them apparently from other African countries in mismatched fatigues — arrived at the scene.
Holding small automatic weapons, they started firing in the air, and then started firing at protesters, who scattered, the witness said. “It was an obscene amount of gunfire,” said the witness. “They were strafing these people. People were running in every direction.” The police stood by and watched, the witness said, as the militiamen, still shooting, chased after the protesters.
The escalation of the conflict came after Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces had earlier in the day retreated to a few buildings in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, fires burned unchecked, and senior government officials and diplomats announced defections. The country’s second-largest city remained under the control of rebels.
Security forces loyal to Mr. Qaddafi defended a handful of strategic locations, including the state television headquarters and the presidential palace, witnesses reported from Tripoli. Fires from the previous night’s rioting burned at many intersections, most stores were shuttered, and long lines were forming for a chance to buy bread or gas.
In a sign of growing cracks within the government, several senior officials — including the justice minister and members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations — broke with Mr. Qaddafi. And protesters in Benghazi, the second-largest city, where the revolt began and more than 200 were killed, issued a list of demands calling for a secular interim government led by the army in cooperation with a council of Libyan tribes.
Mr. Qaddafi’s security forces waved green flags as they rallied in Tripoli’s central Green Square on Monday under the protection of a handful of police, witnesses said. They constituted one of the few visible signs of government authority around the capital. The once ubiquitous posters of Colonel Qaddafi around the capital had been torn down or burned, witnesses said.
Colonel Qaddafi’s whereabouts were not known.
Tripoli descended into chaos in less than 24 hours as a six-day-old revolt suddenly spread from Benghazi across the country on Sunday. The revolt shaking Libya is the latest and most violent turn in a rebellion across the Arab world that seemed unthinkable just two months ago and that has already toppled autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Libyan government has tried to impose a blackout on the country. Foreign journalists cannot enter. Internet access has been almost totally severed, though some protesters appear to be using satellite connections or to be phoning information to news services outside the country.
In a rambling, disjointed address delivered about 1 a.m. on Monday, Mr. Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi played down the uprising sweeping the country, which witnesses and rights activists say has left more than 220 people dead and hundreds wounded from gunfire by security forces. He repeated several times that “Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt, ” neighbors to the east and west.
The United States condemned the Qaddafi government’s lethal use of force.
Witnesses in Tripoli interviewed by telephone on Monday said protesters had converged on the capital’s central Green Square and clashed with heavily armed riot police for several hours after Mr. Qaddafi’s speech, apparently enraged by it. Young men armed themselves with chains around their knuckles, steel pipes and machetes, as well as police batons, helmets and rifles commandeered from riot squads. Security forces moved in, shooting randomly.
By the morning, businesses and schools remained closed in the capital, the witnesses said. There were several government buildings on fire — including the Hall of the People, where the legislature meets — and reports of looting.
News agencies reported that several foreign oil and gas companies were moving on Monday to evacuate some workers from the country. The Portuguese government sent a plane to Libya to pick up its citizens and other residents of the European Union, while Turkey sent two ferries for its construction workers, The Associated Press reported.
The Quryna newspaper, which has ties to Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, said that protests have occurred in Ras Lanuf, an oil town where some workers were being assembled to defend a refinery complex from attacks.
Quryna also reported that the justice minister, Mustafa Abud al-Jeleil, had resigned in protest over the deadly response to the demonstrations.
Al Manara, an opposition Web site, reported that a senior military official, Col. Abdel Fattah Younes in Benghazi, resigned, and the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Colonel Qaddafi ordered that one of his top generals, Abu Bakr Younes, be put under house arrest after disobeying an order to use force against protesters in several cities.
Abdel Monem Al-Howni, Libya’s representative to the Arab League, also resigned. “I no longer have any links to this regime which lost all legitimacy,” he said in a statement reported by news agencies . He also called what is happening in Libya “genocide.”
Protesters remained in control of Benghazi on Monday. Online videos showed protesters flying an independence flag over the roof top of a building in Benghazi, and a crowd celebrating what they called “the fall of the regime in their city.”
The younger Mr. Qaddafi blamed Islamic radicals and Libyans in exile for the uprising. He offered a vague package of reforms in his televised speech, potentially including a new flag, national anthem and confederate structure. But his main theme was to threaten Libyans with the prospect of civil war over its oil resources that would break up the country, deprive residents of food and education, and even invite a Western takeover.
“Libya is made up of tribes and clans and loyalties,” he said. “There will be civil war.”
With little shared national experience aside from brutal Italian colonialism, Libyans tend to identify themselves as members of tribes or clans rather than citizens of a country, and Colonel Qaddafi has governed in part through the mediation of a “social leadership committee” composed of about 15 representatives of various tribes, said Diederik Vandewalle, a Dartmouth professor who has studied the country.
In addition, Mr. Vandewalle noted, most of the tribal representatives on the committee are also military officers, who each represent a tribal group within the military. So, unlike the Tunisian or Egyptian militaries, the Libyan military lacks the cohesion or professionalism that might enable it to step in to resolve the conflict with the protesters or to stabilize the country.
Over the last three days Libyan security forces have killed at least 223 people, according to a tally by the group Human Rights Watch. Several people in Benghazi hospitals, reached by telephone, said they believed that as many as 200 had been killed and more than 800 wounded there on Saturday alone, with many of the deaths from machine gun fire.
After protesters marched in a funeral procession on Sunday morning, the security forces again opened fire, killing at least 60 more, Human Rights Watch said.
The deputy ambassador and more than a dozen members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations called upon Colonel Qaddafi to step down and leave the country in a letter drafted on Monday.
“He has to leave as soon as possible,” the deputy ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, said, paraphrasing the letter. “He has to stop killing the Libyan people.”
He urged other nations to join in that request, saying he feared there could be a large-scale massacre in Tripoli and calling on “African nations” to stop sending what he called “mercenaries” to fight on behalf of Qaddafi’s government.
Mr. Dabbashi said he had not seen the Libyan ambassador since Friday and did not know his whereabouts or whether he shared the opinion of many in his mission.
But, Mr. Dabbashi said, the United Nations mission represents the people, not Colonel Qaddafi.
The man who was the government’s chief spokesman until a month ago, Mohamed Bayou, called on Libya’s leadership to begin a dialogue with the opposition and discuss drawing up a Constitution. On Monday, Reuters reported that Mr. Bayou issued a statement referring to Seif Qaddafi: “I hope he will change his speech to acknowledge the existence of an internal popular opposition.”
Reporting was contributed by Sharon Otterman and Neil MacFarquhar from Cairo; Nada Bakri from Beirut, Lebanon; and Colin Moynihan from New York.