Libya descends into unprecedented chaos
CAIRO - Protesters Monday overran several Libyan cities and regime stalwarts began defecting as the pillars of Moamer Gathafi's hardline rule were targeted in Tripoli amid reports he had fled the country.
Cities including Benghazi in the east had fallen to demonstrators opposing Gathafi's 41-year-old regime after military units deserted, said the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR).
With gunfire crackling in the streets of Tripoli, protesters also attacked police stations and the offices of the state broadcaster, Gathafi's mouthpiece, as well as setting government buildings ablaze.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon told Gathafi in a phone call that the violence "must stop immediately" and called for a broad-based dialogue, a UN spokesman said.
In Brussels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Gathafi may be heading to Venezuela, citing "information that suggests he is on his way," but Caracas quickly denied this.
US President Barack Obama was "considering all appropriate actions" on Libya, as Washington ordered out all non-essential staff and warned Americans to avoid travel to the north African country.
Two Libyan warplanes with four personnel on board who said they had escaped Benghazi air base after it was overrun by protesters landed in Malta, military sources said.
Italy put all military air bases on maximum alert after the Libyan fighters landed, ANSA news agency reported.
Two civilian helicopters also arrived in Malta with seven people who said they were French and worked on oil rigs near Benghazi, the Maltese sources said.
Libyan state television said security forces were battling "dens of terrorists" in a sweep that has killed a number of people, without specifying where this was or who was being targeted.
State television reported that Gathafi's son, Seif al-Islam, had set up a commission to probe "the sad events currently taking place in Libya," and that it would include "members of Libyan and foreign rights organisations."
He had already appeared on television overnight to warn that the country faced civil war.
"Libya is at a crossroads. If we do not agree today on reforms... rivers of blood will run through Libya," he said in a fiery but rambling speech that betrayed a note of desperation within his father's regime.
"We will take up arms... we will fight to the last bullet. We will destroy seditious elements. If everybody is armed, it is civil war, we will kill each other... Libya is not Egypt, it is not Tunisia."
IFHR head Souhayr Belhassen said protesters had control of Benghazi, Sirte, Tobruk in the east, as well as Misrata, Khoms, Tarhounah, Zenten, Al-Zawiya and Zouara, closer to the capital.
Witnesses in Sirte denied that Gathafi's coastal hometown was under the control of protesters, but others in Al-Zawiya told AFP that police had fled that city.
The IFHR said that besides soldiers and diplomats, other senior regime officials had also defected to the side of protesters, demanding that Gathafi go after more than 41 years in power.
It said the protests had resulted in up to 400 deaths. Human Rights Watch earlier cited a death toll of 233.
Protesters in the capital attacked the state broadcaster's offices and overnight set alight branches of the People's Committees that are the mainstay of Gathafi's regime, witnesses told AFP.
Broadcasts on both channels interrupted on Sunday evening resumed on Monday.
"Protesters burned and ransacked the ministry of interior building," in central Tripoli, one witness told AFP by email.
Earlier, heavy gunfire erupted in central Tripoli and other city areas for the first time since the uprising began in eastern Libya, witnesses and an AFP journalist reported.
"When we heard the unrest was approaching, we stocked up on flour and tomatoes. It's definitely the end of the regime. This has never happened in Libya before. We are praying that it ends quickly," a resident of a suburb east of Tripoli told AFP in Cairo by telephone.
Seif al-Islam Gathafi, 38, who holds no formal government post but wields vast influence as heir apparent, suggested that Benghazi was out of government control.
"At this moment there are tanks being driven by civilians in Benghazi," he said, insisting that the uprising was aimed at installing Islamist rule and that it would be ruthlessly crushed.
Libya's justice minister, Mustapha Abdeljalil, resigned in objection to "the excessive use of force" against demonstrators, the Quryna newspaper website reported.
In Cairo, Libya's Arab League envoy said he had resigned to "join the revolution."
Tripoli's ambassador to Delhi also quit, as did a lower-level diplomat in Beijing, Al-Jazeera television reported.
Oil prices soared above $105 per barrel on the turmoil, and the Fitch agency downgraded Libya's debt rating a notch from BBB+ to BBB, adding that a further drop was likely.
British energy giant BP said it was preparing to evacuate some staff from Libya, which holds Africa's biggest oil reserves, and French oil giant Total said it was repatriating most of its expatriate employees and their families.
Portugal and Austria sent military planes to evacuate their nationals, as European governments and firms scrambled to evacuate their citizens from a Libya facing the looming spectre of civil war.