Libya: Pro-government forces fire on mourners
A Libyan hospital official says snipers have killed at least one person and injured a dozen more after they opened fire on mourners at a mass funeral for 35 protesters who had demonstrated to demand the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi.
Saturday's shootings occurred in the eastern city of Benghazi, which has been a focal point of five days of unrest and where government forces wiped out a protest encampment earlier in the day.
The hospital official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said snipers were firing from the top of the security headquarters in the city.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
CAIRO (AP) - 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 even traffic police," a lawyer in Benghazi said. People feared that pro-government forces would soon follow up the encampment raid with house-to-house attacks.
"Residents formed neighborhood watches ... guarding their houses and neighborhoods," the lawyer said. He 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. Tolls given to the Associated Press on Friday largely tally with those announced by the rights group.
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.
Doctors in Benghazi said Friday that 35 bodies had been brought 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 the bodies bore wounds from being shot "directly at the head and the chests."
About 20 coffins were brought to the square outside the Benghazi courthouse later Saturday as part of a mass funeral for the shooting victims, another witness said. Thousands of mourners were at the scene.
Gadhafi is facing the biggest popular uprising of his 42-year autocratic reign, with Libyans taking to the streets and much of the action in 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.
At least five cities in 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 Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information released a report back in 2004 that said nearly 1 million people among Libya's population of about 6 million had Internet access at the time. That was just three years after Internet service had been extended to the public.
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.
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