Heavy gunfire in Libyan capital

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Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi addresses the nation in a TV broadcast in Tripoli (AP)

Heavy gunfire broke out in Tripoli as forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi tightened their grip on the capital.

But anti-government protesters claimed control of many cities elsewhere and top government officials and diplomats turned against the long-time leader.

While cities in the eastern half of the country celebrated, raising the flags of the old monarchy, the mood in Tripoli was bleak. Residents were afraid to leave their houses, saying pro-Gaddafi forces were opening fire randomly in the streets.

International outrage mounted a day after Col Gaddafi vowed to defend his rule and called on supporters to crack down on anti-government protesters. Col Gaddafi’s retaliation has already been the harshest in the Arab world to the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were “credible,” although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.

The fighting in Tripoli came as the opposition reportedly seized control of Misrata, with witnesses saying people were honking their horns and raising pre-Gaddafi flags from the monarchy to celebrate. Misrata would be the first major city in the west to fall to anti-government forces, which have mainly been concentrated in the east.

Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor, said six residents had been killed and 200 injured since February 18, when protesters attacked offices and buildings linked to Gaddafi’s regime. He said residents had formed committees to protect the city, clean the streets and treat the injured.

“The solidarity among the people here is amazing, even the disabled are helping out,” he said.

New videos posted by Libya’s opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the flag from the pre-Gaddafi monarchy on a building in Zawiya, on the outskirts of Tripoli. Another showed protesters lining up cement blocks and setting tires ablaze to fortify positions on a square inside the capital.

Col Gaddafi defiantly vowed to fight to his “last drop of blood” and urged his supporters to strike back against Libyan protesters to defend his embattled regime in a televised speech on Tuesday that served as an all-out call for his backers to impose control over the capital and take back other cities.

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