FORCES loyal to Muammar Gaddafi carried out their threats to trigger a civil war in Libya last night.
hey took up positions across Tripoli and began a rearguard action against rebels in major cities.
Residents in parts of the capital were trapped in their homes as "thousands" of soldiers patrolled the streets, accompanied by African mercenaries.
Tanks took up positions around important public buildings, while sandbag defences were also being built.
"We will fight until death," a pro-Gaddafi soldier in his early 20s said outside a military compound near Tripoli's Green Square, which had been cleared of demonstrators.
"The country needs stability at a time like this. The people are on our side."
Residents said bodies were still piling up in hospitals from the shootings of the previous two days.
"Anywhere we go there is danger," said a 28-year-old mother of four who asked not to be named. "All we want is food and fresh water for our children but it is impossible to find."
As ministers, generals and diplomats defected, government spokesmen loyal to Col Gaddafi were trying to rally people to his side.
The Libyan leader signalled a fightback in a speech on Tuesday, when he called on supporters to "chase away the rats and terrorists".
General Jameel al-Kadiki, deputy commander of the air force, denied that his jets had bombed civilians but said they had been forced to prevent opponents using military supplies "against the Libyan people". Later, the deputy foreign minister, Khaled Khaim, claimed to EU ambassadors that al-Qa'ida had set up a base in the rebel city of Darnah.
But the area under government control was shrinking. Most of the east is held by protesters and is relatively peaceful, though there were reports of dozens of deaths in al-Bayda. The total numbers who have died was not certain. Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister, said reports of 1,000 dead were "credible".
Maj Gen Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi, a former eastern commander, was with defecting troops in Tobruk. Misrata, a coastal city east of Tripoli, and Zawiya to the west, were also said to be under rebel control.
But opposition groups said the Khamis Brigade, loyal to Col Gaddafi's youngest son, was moving against these towns.
A resident of Misrata said loyalist forces were attacking its TV station. Loyalist forces were also fighting back in Sabratha.
Col Gaddafi and his sons seemed to be planning to regroup in Tripoli and the province of Sirte, his birthplace, before fighting back.
Two crew of a Sukhoi-22 attack jet ejected after refusing to bomb Benghazi, the eastern city where the revolution started. But Mohammed Ali Abdullah, of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, an exile group, said defecting soldiers had shown no willingness to fight for the revolution. In Washington, President Obama was said to be reviewing his options, including sanctions, to pressure Libya to halt the brutal crackdown.
It also emerged that Middle Eastern airports were turning away planes carrying members of Col Gaddafi's family.
Questions were still being asked about the statement read by the former public security minister, Abdul Fattah Younis, that he had changed sides. But the government claimed he had been kidnapped.
The role of the army remains unclear. One senior retired general said he was leading troops in defence of the protesters in Tobruk, while large numbers of other units have laid down their weapons. But it was not known how many would fight against brigades that remained loyal.
Diplomatic missions around the world have gone over to the opposition en masse. (© Daily Telegraph, London)