TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Mourners in Libya’s second city of Benghazi were on Saturday burying some of the dozens of protesters shot dead by security forces in the worst unrest of Muammar Gaddafi’s four decades in power.
Human Rights Watch said 35 people were killed in the city late on Friday, adding to dozens who had already died in a fierce crackdown on three days of protests inspired by uprisings in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.
Friday’s deaths in Benghazi happened when security forces opened fire on people protesting after funeral processions for victims of earlier violence, the group said.
The New York-based watchdog said the killings on Friday took to 84 its estimate for the total death toll after three days of protests focussed on the restive region around Benghazi, 1,000 km (600 miles) east of Tripoli.
Asked by Qatar-based Al Jazeera television how many people were to be buried on Saturday, Benghazi cleric Abellah al-Warfali said he had a list of 16 people, most with bullet wounds to the head and chest.
“I saw with my own eyes a tank crushing two people in a car,” he said. “They didn’t do any harm to anyone.”
The private Quryna newspaper, which is based in Benghazi and has been linked to one of Gaddafi’s sons, said 24 people were killed in Benghazi on Friday.
It said security forces opened fire to stop protesters attacking the police headquarters and a military detachment where weapons were stored. “The guards were forced to use bullets,” the paper said.
The government has released no casualty figures, nor made any official comment on the violence.
Away from the eastern region, the country appeared calm. A government-run newspaper blamed the protests on Zionism and the “traitors of the West,” while officials said foreign media were exaggerating the scale of the violence in the east.
Libya-watchers say an Egypt-style nationwide revolt is unlikely because Gaddafi has oil cash to smooth over social problems and he is also still respected in much of the country.
In London, British foreign minister William Hague said he had reports that heavy weapons fire and sniper units were being used against demonstrators. “This is clearly unacceptable and horrifying,” he said in a statement.
A Benghazi resident, who lives near the city centre, said shooting could be heard on Friday night and that protesters attacked and damaged the state-run radio station near his home.
“I heard shooting last night until midnight,” the resident, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters. “The radio station has been attacked … We do not know what we are going to do.”
He said most people were staying inside their houses because they were too frightened to go out.
The security forces in the streets were wearing yellow hats, the witness said, which are not part of standard Libyan police or army uniform. “They are not Libyans,” he said.
Another Benghazi resident told Reuters from the city: “There are still a large number of protesters standing in front of Benghazi court. They have decided they are not going to move.”
POLICE STATIONS TORCHED
A security source said that there were still clashes going on in the region between Benghazi and the town of Al Bayda, about 200 km away, where local people said dozens have also been killed by security forces in the past 72 hours.
“The situation in the eastern area from Al Bayda to Benghazi is 80 percent under control … A lot of police stations have been set on fire or damaged,” the security source told Reuters. He also said: “Please do not believe what foreign radio and television are saying. Their information is not exact.”
Foreign journalists have not been allowed to enter Libya since the unrest began, local reporters have been barred from travelling to Benghazi and mobile phone connections to towns in the east of the country have frequently been out of service.
Al Jazeera said its signal was being jammed on several frequencies and its website had been blocked in Libya.
The state-run Alzahf Alakhdar, or Green March, newspaper published an editorial under the title: “No leader except Gaddafi!” and sent a defiant message to opponents of his rule.
“Our people are today more determined to face their challenges and to confront all the dirty plans and the conspiracies designed by America and Zionism and the traitors of the West.”