TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Security forces in Libya's second city killed at least three people on Saturday but have withdrawn to a fortified compound, a witness said, after the worst unrest in Muammar Gaddafi's four decades in power.
Human Rights Watch said 84 people have been killed over the past three days in a fierce security crackdown mounted in response to anti-government protests that sought to emulate uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
There was no sign of a nationwide revolt, with the violence concentrated around the city of Benghazi, 1,000 km (625 miles) east of the capital, where support for Gaddafi traditionally has been weaker than in the rest of the country.
A resident in Benghazi said security forces which killed dozens of protesters over the past 72 hours were confined to a compound, which he called the Command Center, from which snipers were firing at protesters.
"They shot dead three protesters from that building today," the witness, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.
"Right now, the only military presence in Benghazi is confined to the Command Center Complex in the city. The rest of the city is liberated," he said.
"Thousands and thousands of people have gathered in front of Benghazi's court house. There are now makeshift clinics, ambulances, speakers, electricity. It's fully-equipped."
"There is no shortage of food although not all stores are open. Banks are shut. All of the revolutionary committee (local government) offices and police stations in the city have been burned," he said.
The account could not be independently verified. A security source earlier gave a different account, saying the situation in the Benghazi region was "80 percent under control."
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had reports that heavy weapons fire and sniper units were being used against demonstrators. "This is clearly unacceptable and horrifying," he said in a statement.
The private Quryna newspaper, which is based in Benghazi and has been linked to one of Gaddafi's sons, said 24 people were killed in Benghazi on Friday. It said security forces had opened fire to stop protesters attacking the police headquarters and a military base where weapons were stored. "The guards were forced to use bullets," the paper said.
The government has not released any casualty figures or made any official comment on the violence.
A group of 50 religious Libyan scholars appealed for an end to the violence. A copy of the appeal was made available to Reuters.
Away from the eastern region, Libya appeared calm.
In Green Square in the center of Tripoli, next to the walled old city, several hundred people gathered, waving portraits of Gaddafi and chanting "Our revolutionary leader!" and "We follow your path," a Reuters reporter said.
A state-controlled newspaper said the violence was part of "the dirty plans and the conspiracies designed by America and Zionism and the traitors of the West."
State television showed footage of one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons, Saadi Gaddafi, who was this week put in charge of Benghazi, touring Green Square in the center of Tripoli.
He was cheered by about 1,000 people, most of them supporters of the capital's two main soccer clubs, Al-Ahly and Al-Ettihad, as he toured the square on the roof of a car, waving and shaking the hands of supporters.
The crowd chanted "God, Libya and Muammar only."
Libya-watchers say an Egypt-style nationwide revolt is unlikely because Gaddafi has oil cash to smooth over social problems, and is still respected in much of the country.
Noman Benotman, a former dissident Islamist, told Reuters the government was talking to tribal leaders in Benghazi to try to defuse tensions. But he said if the authorities decided to restore order by force it would be done "toughly."
POLICE STATIONS TORCHED
The security source said clashes were still going on in the region between Benghazi and the town of Al Bayda, about 200 km away, where local people said dozens also had been killed by security forces in the past 72 hours.
"The situation in the eastern area from Al Bayda to Benghazi is 80 percent under control ... A lot of police stations have been set on fire or damaged," the security source told Reuters. He also said: "Please do not believe what foreign radio and television are saying. Their information is not accurate."
Foreign journalists have not been allowed to enter Libya since the unrest began, local reporters have been barred from traveling to Benghazi and mobile phone connections frequently have been out of service.
(Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Rabat and Matt Falloon and William Maclean in London and Tom Heneghan in Paris; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Jon Boyle)