More than 230 killed in Libya protests

Civil unrest in Libya is rapidly gathering pace as protests hit the capital Tripoli

What began as peaceful protests against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s oppressive regime appear to be escalating towards civil war.

Violent scenes have swept across the country, with the death toll rising to more than 230 people as troops attempt to crack down on peaceful protesters.

Soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the country’s second city of Benghazi.

Shocked witnesses spoke of massacres and described corpses shot in the head, chest or neck piling up in hospitals running short of blood and medicines.

Last night, BBC Arabic reported automatic gunfire and teargas in the capital for the first time since the unrest began, while foreign journalists have been banned from entering the country since the start of the protests.

Muammar Gaddafi’s son gave what has been described as a rambling speech on Libyan TV, defending his father’s 41-year rule of Libya as protests gather force.

Saif al-Islam repeatedly said Libya was ‘not Egypt or Tunisia’ – neighbouring countries whose leaders were swept from power in recent weeks.

‘Muammar Gaddafi, our leader, is leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him,’ he said. ‘The armed forces are with him. Tens of thousands are heading here to be with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.’

In fast-moving developments, demonstrators were reported to be in Tripoli’s Green Square and preparing to march on Gaddafi’s compound as rumours spread that the leader had fled to Venezuela.

‘People are in the street chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) and throwing stones at photos of Gaddafi,’ says an expatriate worker from Tripoli. ‘The police are firing teargas everywhere, it’s even getting into the houses.’

Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke to Saif al-Islam and expressed ‘alarm at reports of large numbers of people being killed or attacked by Libyan security forces.’

Widespread unrest has swept across the middle east including: Yemen, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait and Algeria, and has seen the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia relinquish their power.

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