Libyan security forces have killed at least 84 people during three days of protests against Muammer Gaddafi’s regime, in the worst unrest to hit the oil-rich north African state for decades, a human rights organisation said.
Residents in Benghazi, Libya’s second city where much of the violence has taken place, said there were more casualties on Saturday as security forces fired on people. They added that thousands continued to protest outside the city’s courthouse.
It was impossible to confirm the information. The internet appeared to be blocked across Libya and people said they could not send text messages.
Human Rights Watch said 35 people were killed in Benghazi on Friday mostly by live fire, as thousands of people had gathered to for the funerals of 20 people who died during a brutal crackdown by security forces the previous day.
Thousands of people also protested in other eastern towns, including Al-Bayda, where 23 people had been killed by security forces on Thursday, the New York-based rights group said.
The east has been a traditional hotbed of opposition to Col. Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya with an iron grip since seizing power in 1969 and is the Arab world’s longest serving leader. Libyan activists had called for a “day of anger” on Thursday to demonstrate against his regime, emulating those who drove the uprisings that swept the presidents of neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt from power.
Opposition figures and activists said the unrest had spread to other towns and cities and have put the death toll higher. However, there appeared to be no demonstrations in Tripoli, the capital.
Information is tightly controlled in Libya and it was impossible to verify the scale of the protests or the casualty figures. Human Rights Watch said it gathered its information from speaking to medical sources and witnesses in the cities where the protests had erupted.
“Muammer Gaddafi’s security forces are firing on Libyan citizens and killing scores simply because they’re demanding change and accountability,” said Joe Stork at the rights organisation.
Dissent is not tolerated in Libya, political parties are banned and public protests are extremely rare, with revolutionary committees, which have their own militias, keeping tight control on towns and villages across the country. There have been reports that revolutionary committee offices have been burnt down during the protests.
Mr Gaddafi appears to have employed similar tactics that were used by Tunisia’s Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to quell the protests – deploying security forces to crackdown on activists, mobilising loyalists to march in counter demonstrations and reportedly offering to double public servants salaries.
Late on Thursday, he drove through a crowd of flag waving loyalists in Tripoli. Activists say the pro-regime demonstrators were bussed in and paid to take part, adding that Mr Gaddafi also has the resources to pay off individuals and tribes, which are influential in rural areas.
The country had been gradually opening up after years of isolation under sanctions. But in spite of being home to Africa’s largest proved oil reserves, Libya suffers from many of the ills of its neighbours, particularly rampant unemployment which is estimated to be at least 30 per cent.
A critical issue is whether the protesters can sustain their momentum in a large country that has a population of just 6m scattered around the nation and which has a long history of oppression.
“If there is sufficient collaboration among the protesters in different parts of the country they could start some momentum, but if not it may die down,” said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya.
Ashour Shamis, a London-based government critic, said the scale and nature of the protests were new to Libya.
“There’s a schism between the regime and the people and in the past you could not talk about it openly. Now you can feel there’s a very strong trend of opposition inside the country,” he said. “They just want to express their views and there is no way of expressing your views if you are against the regime or if you differ from Gaddafi’s mantra. We have a cult figure who dominates everything.”
The demonstrations began on Tuesday after the authorities detained a prominent lawyer who was also a spokesman for the families of prisoners who were killed in a 1996 shooting in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison. The activists had been calling on Facebook for mass rallies on Thursday to mark the February 2006 death of a dozen demonstrators during a protest against the Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Mohamed.