CAIRO — Libyan forces fired machine-guns at thousands of mourners marching in a funeral for anti-government protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi Sunday, a day after commandos and foreign mercenaries loyal to longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi attacked demonstrators with assault rifles and other heavy weapons.
A doctor at one Benghazi hospital where many of the casualties are being taken said 20 people were killed Sunday. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said 173 people died — mostly in Benghazi — in three days of unrest from Thursday through Saturday. A Switzerland-based Libyan activist said 11 people were killed in the city of Beyida on Wednesday. The latest numbers brought the toll to at least 204 since Wednesday, although a precise count has been difficult because of Libya’s tight restrictions on reporting.
The crackdown in oil-rich Libya is shaping up to be the most brutal repression of anti-government protests that began with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The protests spread quickly around the region to Bahrain in the Gulf, impoverished Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, the North African neighbors of Tunisia — Libya, Algeria, Morocco — and outside the Middle East to places including the East African nation of Djibouti and even China.
Gadhafi has been trying to bring his country out of isolation, announcing in 2003 that he was abandoning his program for weapons of mass destruction, renouncing terrorism and compensating victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Those decisions opened the door for warmer relations with the West and the lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions. But Gadhafi continues to face allegations of human rights violations in his North African nation. Gadhafi has his own vast oil wealth and his response is less constrained by close alliances with the West than Egypt and Bahrain, which are both important U.S. allies.
Because of the media blackout, information about the uprising has come through telephone interviews, along with videos and messages posted online, and through opposition activists in exile. The blackout has made it difficult to confirm the tolls of dead and wounded.
Britain has called reports of the use of snipers and heavy weapons against demonstrators in Libya “clearly unacceptable and horrifying,” and criticized restrictions on media access.
Libya’s rebellion by those frustrated with Gadhafi’s more than 40 years of authoritarian rule has spread to more than a half-dozen cities. Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city with some 1 million people, has been at the center of unrest
Jamal Eddin Mohammed, a 53-year old resident of Benghazi, said thousands marched Sunday toward the city’s cemetery to bury at least a dozen protesters. They feared more clashes with the government when they passed by Gadhafi’s residential palace and the regime’s local security headquarters.
“Everything is behind that (Gadhafi) compound; hidden behind wall after wall. The doors open and close and soldiers and tanks just come out, always as a surprise, and mostly after dark,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.
A man shot in the leg Sunday said marchers were carrying coffins to a cemetery and were passing by the compound when security forces fired in the air and then opened up on the crowd.
The doctor at one of three Benghazi hospitals who put Sunday’s death toll at 20, said his facility is out of supplies and cannot treat more than 70 wounded. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. He said his hospital treats most of the emergency cases in the city.
The latest violence in Benghazi followed the same pattern as the crackdown on Saturday, when witnesses said forces loyal to Gadhafi attacked mourners at a funeral for anti-government protesters. They were burying 35 marchers who were slain Friday by government forces.
The doctor at a Benghazi hospital said at least one person was killed by gunshots during the funeral march, and 14 were injured, including five in serious condition. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, as did several other witnesses in Libya. He said some of the latest casualties were hit by machine gun fire.
On Saturday, witnesses told The Associated Press a mix of special commandos, foreign mercenaries and Gadhafi loyalists assaulted demonstrators in Benghazi with knives, assault rifles and other heavy weapons.
On Sunday, defiant mourners chanted: “The people demand the removal of the regime,” which became a mantra for protesters in Egypt and Tunisia.
In a Saturday report, the official Libyan news agency said authorities have arrested “dozens of foreign elements trained to strike at Libya’s stability and security.” It said an investigation already was under way. It also said authorities were not ruling out that those elements were connected to what it called an Israeli plot to destabilize countries in North Africa, including Libya, as well as Lebanon and Iran.
Hatred of Gadhafi’s rule has grown in Benghazi in the past two decades. Anger has focused on the shooting deaths of about 1,200 inmates — most of them political prisoners — during prison riots in 1996.
A similar scenario took place in other eastern cities, including Beyda, which once housed Libya’s parliament before Gadhafi’s 1969 military coup toppled the monarchy.
Protests spread to the outskirts of the southern city of Zentan and west to Mesrata, Libya’s third-largest city.
However, the capital Tripoli, a city of some 2 million people, remained a stronghold of Gadhafi support, with security forces swiftly curbing small protests that erupted in the outskirts. Secret police were heavily deployed on the streets, as residents kept their opinions and emotions secret.
Residents on Saturday reported receiving short messages on their mobile phones warning about taking any action against Gadhafi, national security and the oil industry, which are among “red lines” in Libya that must not be crossed.
The U.S.-based Arbor Networks reported another Internet service outage in Libya just before midnight Saturday night. The company says online traffic ceased in Libya about 2 a.m. Saturday, was restored at reduced levels several hours later, only to be cut off again that night.
People in Libya also said they can no longer make international telephone calls on their land lines.
Abdullah said smaller protests were staged Saturday night on the outskirts of the capital Tripoli, a stronghold of support for Gadhafi, but demonstrators were quickly dispersed by security men. Besides Tripoli and Benghazi, the U.S. State Department in a travel warning to American citizens listed five other cities that have seen demonstrations.
Supporters of the Libyan uprising also demonstrated in Switzerland and in Washington on Saturday, waving flags and burning Gadhafi’s photo.
In Egypt, exiled Libyans and members of the country’s Press Syndicate have sent urgent medical supplies to Libya. Ayman Shawki, a lawyer in the Egyptian border town of Matrouh, said members of the powerful Awllad Ali tribe whose members live in the border area have volunteered to move the supplies to Libya.