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World News

February 21, 2011

Libya launches harshest crackdown yet on protesters

CAIRO — Security forces loyal to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi unleashed heavy gunfire yesterday on thousands marching in a rebellious eastern city, cutting down mourners trying to bury victims in a bloody cycle of violence that has killed more than 200 people in the fiercest crackdown on the uprisings in the Arab world.

Protests were even reported to have spread to downtown Tripoli and a coastal city only about 45 miles to the west of the capital. In Benghazi, site of the funeral clashes, pro-Gadhafi forces were chased from a presidential compound by other troops sympathetic to the anti-government demonstrators, a witness said.

And late last night, Gadhafi's warned in a nationally televised address that continued anti-government protests that have wracked Libya for six days might lead to a civil war that could send the country's oil wells up in flames.

Appearing on Libyan state television after midnight last night, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi said the army still backed his father, who was leading the fight, although he added that some military bases, tanks and weapons had been seized.

"We are not Tunisia and Egypt," the younger Gadhafi said, referring to the successful uprisings that toppled longtime regimes in Libya's neighbors.

He acknowledged that the army made mistakes during protests because it was not trained to deal with demonstrators but added that the number of dead had been exaggerated, giving a death toll of 84. Human Rights Watch put the number at 174 through Saturday, and doctors in the eastern city of Benghazi said more than 200 have died since the protests began.

The younger Gadhafi offered to put forward reforms within days that he described as a "historic national initiative" and said the regime was willing to remove some restrictions and begin discussions for a constitution. He offered to change a number of laws, including those covering the media and the penal code.

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