TRIPOLI: Militias loyal to Muammar Qaddafi opened fire Friday on protesters streaming out of mosques and marching across the Libyan capital to demand the regimeâ€™s ouster, witnesses said, reporting multiple deaths. In rebellious cities in the east, tens of thousands held rallies in support of the first Tripoli protests in days.
The Libyan leader, speaking from the ramparts of a historic Tripoli fort, told supporters to prepare to defend the nation.
Witnesses said gunmen on rooftops and in the streets were shooting at crowds with automatic weapons and even an anti-aircraft gun.
â€œIt was really like we are dogs,â€ one man who was marching from Tripoliâ€™s eastern Tajoura district told The Associated Press. He added that many people were shot in the head, with seven people within 10 meters of him cut down in the first wave.
Also Friday evening, troops loyal to Qaddafi attacked a major air base east of Tripoli that had fallen into rebel hands.
A force of tanks attacked the Misrata Air Base, succeeding in retaking part of it in battles with residents and army units who had joined the anti-Qaddafi uprising, said a doctor and one resident wounded in the battle on the edge of opposition-held Misrata, Libyaâ€™s third-largest city, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) from the capital.
The opposition captured two fighters, including a senior officer, and still held part of the large base, they said.
Shooting could still be heard from the area after midnight.
The doctor said 22 people were killed in two days of fighting at the air base and an adjacent civilian airport.
US imposes sanctions
In Washington, President Barack Obama said the US is imposing unilateral sanctions on Libya because continued violence and unrest there pose an â€œunusual and extraordinary threatâ€ to Americaâ€™s national security and foreign policy.
He said a series of financial sanctions formalized on Friday target the government of Qaddafi while protecting the Libyan peopleâ€™s assets. The penalties name Qaddafi and several family members.
Obama acted after hundreds of Americans were safely evacuated from Libya following days of bloodshed across the country.
White House spokesman said it is clear that Qaddafiâ€™s legitimacy has been â€œreduced to zeroâ€ â€” the Obama administrationâ€™s sharpest words yet.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States has suspended embassy operations in Libya as a final flight carrying American citizens departed from the capital.
Carney told a news conference that Washington would also curtail its limited military cooperation with Libya and that the United States supports suspending Libya from the United Nations.
The UN Security Council met to consider possible sanctions against Qaddafiâ€™s regime, including trade sanctions and an arms embargo. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged it take â€œconcrete actionâ€ to protect civilians in Libya, saying â€œthe violence must stopâ€ and those responsible for â€œso brutally shedding bloodâ€ must be punished.
‘Dance, sing and prepare’
But Qaddafi vowed to fight on. On Friday night, he appeared before a crowd of more than 1,000 supporters in Green Square and called on them to fight back and â€œdefend the nation.â€
â€œRetaliate against them, retaliate against them,â€ Qaddafi said, speaking by microphone from the ramparts of the Red Castle, a Crusader fort overlooking the square.
Wearing a fur cap, he shook his fist, telling the crowd: â€œDance, sing and prepare. Prepare to defend Libya, to defend the oil, dignity and independence.â€
He warned, â€œAt the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire.â€ The crowd waved pictures of the leader and green flags as he said, â€œI am in the middle of the people in the Green Square. … This is the people that loves Muammar Qaddafi. If the people of Libya and the Arabs and Africans donâ€™t love Muammar Qaddafi then Muammar Qaddafi does not deserve to live.â€
Qaddafiâ€™s son, Seif Al-Islam, told foreign journalists invited by the government to Tripoli that there were no casualties in Tripoli and that the capital was â€œcalm … Everything is peaceful. Peace is coming back to our country.â€
He said the regime wants negotiations with the opposition and said there were â€œtwo minor problemsâ€ in Misrata and Zawiya, another city near the capital held by the opposition.
There, he said, â€œwe are dealing with terrorist people.â€ But he said he hoped to reach a peaceful settlement with them â€œand i think by tomorrow we will solve it.â€ Earlier Seif was asked in an interview with CNN-Turk about the options in the face of the unrest. â€œPlan A is to live and die in Libya, Plan B is to live and die in Libya, Plan C is to live and die in Libya,â€ he replied.
The marches in the capital were the first major attempt by protesters to break a clampdown that pro-Qaddafi militiamen have imposed on Tripoli since the beginning of the week, when dozens were killed by gunmen roaming the street, shooting people on sight.
In the morning and night before, text messages were sent around urging protesters to stream out of mosques after noon prayers, saying, â€œLet us make this Friday the Friday of liberation,â€ residents said. The residents and witnesses all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
In response, militiamen set up heavy security around many mosques in the city, trying to prevent any opposition gatherings. Armed young men with green armbands to show their support for Qaddafi set up checkpoints on many streets, stopping cars and searching them. Tanks and checkpoints lined the road to Tripoliâ€™s airport, witnesses said.
After prayers, protesters flowed out of mosques, converging into marches from several neighborhoods, heading toward Green Square. But they were hit almost immediately by militiamen, a mix of Libyans and foreign mercenaries.
â€œWe canâ€™t see where it is coming from,â€ another protester from Tajoura district â€” several miles (kilometers) from Green Square â€” said of the gunfire.
â€œThey donâ€™t want to stop.â€ He said a man next to him was shot in the neck.
In the nearby Souq Al-Jomaa district, witnesses reported four killed as gunmen fired from rooftops. â€œThere are all kind of bullets,â€ said one man in the crowd, screaming in a telephone call to the AP, with the rattle of gunfire audible in the background. Another protester was reported killed in the Fashloum district. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
After nightfall, protesters dispersed, and regime supporters prowled the streets, a resident said. As they have on past nights this week, many blockaded streets into their neighborhoods to prevent militiamen and strangers from entering.
Tripoli, home to about a third of Libyaâ€™s population of 6 million, is the center of the eroding territory that Qaddafi still controls. The opposition holds a long sweep of about half of Libyaâ€™s 1,000-mile (1,600- kilometer) Mediterranean coastline where most of the population lives.
Even in the Qaddafi-held pocket of northwestern Libya around Tripoli, several cities have also fallen to the rebellion. Militiamen and pro-Qaddafi troops were repelled Thursday when they launched attacks trying to take back opposition-held territory in Zawiya and Misrata in fighting that killed at least 30 people.
In an apparent bid to win public favor, parliament speaker Mohammed Abul-Qassim Al-Zwai announced that the government would increase salaries and offer the unemployed a monthly salary. State TV reported the unemployed would get the equivalent of $117 a month and salaries would be raised 50 to 150 percent.
Support for Qaddafi continued to fray within a regime where he long commanded unquestioned loyalty.
Drama at UN
Libyaâ€™s delegation to the United Nations in Geneva announced Friday it was defecting to the opposition â€” and it was given a standing ovation at a gathering of the UN Human Rights Council. They join a string of Libyan ambassadors and diplomats around the world who abandoned the regime, as have the justice and interior ministers at home, and one of Qaddafiâ€™s cousins and closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf Al-Dam, who sought refuge in Egypt.
Libyaâ€™s 11-member Arab League mission also announced its resignation in protest at the crackdown. On a visit to Turkey, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the violence by pro-Qaddafi forces is unacceptable and should not go unpunished.
â€œMr. Qaddafi must go,â€ he said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll in Libya at nearly 300, according to a partial count from several days ago. Italyâ€™s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed were â€œcredible.â€ The upheaval in the OPEC nation has taken most of Libyaâ€™s oil production of 1.6 million barrels a day off the market.
Oil prices hovered above $98 a barrel Friday in Asia, backing away from a spike to $103 the day before amid signs the crisis in Libya may have cut crude supplies less than previously estimated.