Details have emerged of huge casualty figures in the Libyan city of Benghazi, where troops have launched a brutal crackdown on protesters. More than 200 people are known to have died, doctors say, with 900 injured. The most bloody attacks were reported over the weekend, as funeral marches were said to have come under machine-gun and heavy weapons fire.
One doctor, speaking amid the sound of fresh gunfire on Sunday, told the BBC that “a real massacre” had happened. Human Rights Watch says at least 173 people have been killed in Libya since demonstrations began on Wednesday. Benghazi, the country’s second city, has been a leading focus of protests against four decades of rule by Col Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya is one of several countries in the region to have seen pro-democracy campaigns since the fall of long-time Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was forced from power on 11 February. BBC Middle East correspondent Jon Leyne says the unrest in Libya is the most serious challenge yet to Col Gaddafi.
Reports are difficult to verify as the Libyan authorities have imposed severe media restrictions. Foreign media are largely absent from the country and internet traffic from Libya has been throttled in recent days, web analysts report.
‘Stop the massacre’
The Benghazi doctor, known as Braikah, described to the BBC how casualties had been brought to the city’s Jala hospital – most of them with gunshot wounds. “Ninety per cent of these gunshot wounds [were] mainly in the head, the neck, the chest, mainly in the heart,” she said.
She said the Jala hospital mortuary had 208 bodies and another hospital had 12. However, it is not clear whether all of these bodies stem from Saturday’s violence. Another doctor told the Associated Press news agency of similar numbers of bodies, but said they had been taken to the morgue since the violence began earlier in the week.
As Brayka spoke to the BBC she said new gunfire was audible within Benghazi, alleging that security forces were firing on crowds of people attempting to bury some of those killed in recent days. Her account could not be confirmed, but many of Saturday’s deaths are thought to have happened in the same way.
The violence escalated on Saturday, when a funeral procession for victims of previous clashes made its way past a major security compound. Witnesses said troops used machine-guns, mortars, large-calibre weapons, and even a missile, against the mourners. Opposition supporters said the attack was unprovoked, although security sources suggested some protesters threw firebombs at the compound.
Some described scenes of chaos as army snipers shot from the roofs of buildings and demonstrators fought back against troops on the ground. The doctor told the BBC that some Benghazi residents had been shot outside their homes by neighbourhood militias and bodies had been dumped on the street.
The Dubai-based Kalam institute has issued an appeal on behalf of a group of religious and clan leaders from across Libya, urging “every Muslim, within the regime” or anyone helping it [the regime]: “Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters, STOP the massacre NOW!” Most of Benghazi is said to be controlled by anti-government protesters.
There are reports that the government is bringing in elite forces to the city – as well as foreign mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. There have also been reports of anti-government protests in other eastern cities, including al-Bayda and Dernah, as well as Misrata further west, about 200km (125 miles) from the capital Tripoli.
There is no sign of major unrest in Tripoli, Col Gaddafi’s main power base. Austria announced on Sunday that it was sending a military plane to Malta to prepare for the evacuation of Austrian and other EU nationals from Libya or other Arab countries.
- Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has led since 1969
- Population 6.5m; land area 1.77m sq km
- Population with median age of 24.2, and a literacy rate of 88%
- Gross national income per head: $12,020 (World Bank 200