Libyan forces storm protest camp in Benghazi
Libyans set up neighborhood patrols in the shaken eastern city of Benghazi.
Cairo: Libyans set up neighborhood patrols in the shaken eastern city of Benghazi on Saturday as police disappeared from the streets following an attack by government forces on a two-day-old encampment of protesters demanding an end to Moammar Gadhafi`s regime, eyewitnesses said.
The situation in the North African nation has become increasingly chaotic, with a human rights group estimating 84 people have died in a harsh crackdown on anti-Gadhafi demonstrations and the U.S.-based Arbor Networks security company saying Internet service was cut off around 2 a.m. Saturday, eliminating a critical link to the outside world.
"We don`t see a single policeman in the streets, not event traffic police," a lawyer in Benghazi said. Residents feared that pro-government forces would soon follow up the raid on the protest encampment with house-to-house attacks.
"Residents formed neighborhood watches ... guarding their houses and neighborhoods," he said. The man and other people inside Libya spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Switzerland-based Libyan activist Fathi al-Warfali said that several other activists had been detained including, Abdel Hafez Gougha, a well-known organizer who was being held after security forces stormed his house in a night raid.
According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 84 people have died in the Libyan protests, which have escalated dramatically since they began on Tuesday.
About 5:00 a.m. Saturday, special forces attacked hundreds of protesters, including lawyers and judges, camped out in front of the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya`s second-largest city and a focus for the anti-government unrest.
"They fired tear gas on protesters in tents and cleared the areas after many fled carrying the dead and the injured," one protester said over the phone from Benghazi. "This is a ghost city; we are all afraid that something big is going to happen in Benghazi today."
Thousands of protesters are calling for the removal Gadhafi, Libya`s leader for the past 42 years, with much of the action in the cities of the country`s impoverished east.
The nation has huge oil reserves but poverty is a significant problem. 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.
Residents in Benghazi said that just hours before the attack on the encampment, the mood was ebullient as protesters torched police stations, government buildings and took over the local radio station.
They had set up tents on the street in front of the city`s courthouse, overlooking the sea.
Doctors in Benghazi said Friday that 35 bodies had been admitted to the hospital following attacks by security forces backed by militias, on top of more than a dozen killed the day before. Standing in front of Jalaa Hospital morgue, an eyewitness said that bodies were shot "directly at the head and the chests."
Families gathered in front of the hospital, preparing for a mass funeral and renewal of protests and thousands more met at the courthouse to join them.
"We appeal to the international community and United Nations to intervene and stop bloodshed and massacres," he said
At least five cities of eastern Libya have seen protests and clashes in recent days.
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, they added. 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.
During the popular revolt in Egypt, authorities cut off the Internet for several days, though it did not quell the uprising that eventually brought down the president. Information is tightly controlled in Libya, where journalists cannot work freely and many citizens fear the powerful security and intelligence services.
The government made one apparent gesture aimed at easing protests on Friday. The news website Quryna, which has ties to Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, another of the leader`s sons, said 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.
There have been few anti-government protests in the capital Tripoli, in the west of the country, where the government has staged large pro-Gadhafi rallies.