| 6.7°C Dublin

Libyan leader unleashes army on unarmed protesters

Colonel Muammar Gadaffi is confronting the most serious challenge to his 42-year rule as leader of Libya by unleashing his army on unarmed protesters.

Unlike the rulers of neighbouring Egypt, Mr Gadaffi has refused to countenance the politics of disobedience, despite growing international condemnation, and the death toll of demonstrators was nearing 100 last night.

The pro-government 'Al-Zahf al-Akhdar' newspaper warned that the government would "violently and thunderously respond" to the protests, and said those opposing the regime risked "suicide".

William Hague, the UK's foreign secretary, condemned the violence as "unacceptable and horrifying", even as the Libyan regime's special forces, backed by African mercenaries, launched a dawn attack on a protest camp in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

Mr Hague's outspoken comments came a day after the government revoked arms export licences to both Bahrain and Libya for their use of deadly force against protesters calling for a change in the regime.

With internet services in Libya shut off for long periods, foreign journalists excluded and access already blocked to social networking sites, Mr Gadaffi appeared determined to quell a revolt centred in the country's east, which has long suffered a policy of deliberate economic exclusion.

Libya has also jammed the signals of Al-Jazeera, the Arab broadcaster to the country. Reports yesterday from inside the country claimed pro-regime forces had deliberately aimed at protesters' heads.

That allegation appeared to be supported by shocking video footage smuggled out of the country that seems to show two unarmed protesters being shot in the head.

At least five cities in eastern Libya have seen protests and clashes in recent days. Early yesterday, special forces attempted to break up a protest camp that included lawyers and judges outside Benghazi's courthouse.

"They fired tear gas on protesters in tents and cleared the areas after many fled carrying the dead and the injured," one protester said.

A mass funeral for 35 people who died on Friday came under fire from pro-government snipers, reports said.

The shootings came amid credible reports of a round-up of government opponents who were taken from their homes in raids by security forces.

The crackdown has been led by the elite Khamis Brigade, led by Mr Gadaffi's youngest son.

Unconfirmed reports claim that force has been backed by African mercenaries brought into the country by plane.

A video yesterday on the Libya February 17 website (www.libyafeb17.com) app-eared to show an injured African mercenary who had been captured by anti-government protesters.

© Observer

Sunday Independent