LIBYA'S major cities were in the hands of opposition forces last night as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi turned his air force on his people in a last-ditch bid to stay in power.
Jets bombed airfields and other military targets as he left the city, initially going to Sebha, the town where he grew up, to prevent the weapons falling into rebel hands.
Among the targets was said to be the fortified encampment in the capital Tripoli where he lived. Unconfirmed reports put the death toll in the fierce fighting in the capital at 160 yesterday.
Civilian areas were also said to have been hit. The regime had "declared war on its people", its own deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Omar al-Dabashi, said in disgust.
"What we are witnessing today is unimaginable," said one resident, named as Adel Mohammed Saleh. "Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead. Our people are dying. It is the policy of scorched earth."
Others talked of mercenary forces opening fire at random in the capital.
Senior regime figures abandoned their former leader, including his public security minister, Abdul Fattah Younis al-Obeid, and his justice minister, Mustapha Abdeljalil.
But, more significantly, large parts of the armed forces joined the protesters, though fighting continued to the end.
"Gaddafi is losing control of the military -- he can no longer trust them," said a pro-democracy campaigner in Tripoli. "We have spoken to campaigners in other parts of the country who have told us about the attacks on military planes. It is the end game for Gaddafi and he is reacting with death and destruction."
As late as Sunday afternoon, it had seemed that fighting had been restricted to Benghazi and other eastern cities long regarded as more hostile to the Gaddafi regime, though there were sporadic reports of demonstrations closer to the capital.
But overnight protesters in Tripoli came under fire from security forces, many in plain clothes, with a number of deaths. By yesterday morning the Hall of the People, the parliament building that was the symbol of the Jamahiriya -- or People's Republic -- was on fire, black smoke pouring out.
"The entire building is burning -- firemen are trying to put the fire out but it is growing in intensity," said a resident living in a nearby apartment block. "The fire service is having to be protected by soldiers. Agitators want to see all symbols of Col Gaddafi's government destroyed."
The television station was ransacked, along with branches of international banks -- something which will alarm western governments who have welcomed Libya's recent moves to open up to investment.
Nevertheless, the authorities retained control of television itself. A statement last night said Col Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, had ordered an investigation into the violence but that security forces had "stormed the dens of terrorists and saboteurs who are motivated by hatred". Several people had been killed, it said.
Security forces continued to fire at protesters from inside secure compounds, and another night of violence seemed likely.
The number of deaths remained unclear. Human Rights Watch yesterday morning gave a count of 233 based on incomplete reports from hospitals. The real number is likely to be much higher.
Conditions inside Benghazi were not known after telephone lines were cut.
But the International Federation for Human Rights said Libya's second city, along with Sirte, Tobruk, Misrata, Khoms, Tarhounah, Zenten, Al-Zawiya and Zouara had all been taken by protesters.
Sirte, on the Libyan coast, is Col Gaddafi's birthplace.
Three of the dictator's three sons, Mutassim, Saadi and Khamis, were said to be leading military attempts to retake rebel areas, but their exact whereabouts was uncertain. Meanwhile a late night speech by Saif al-Islam, previously thought of as a reformer, may have been the final blow to the regime's credibility.
He admitted that Benghazi was in the hands of "civilians driving tanks", offered concessions -- and then said the regime would fight to the last man, "even the last woman" standing to stay in power. (© Daily Telegraph, London)