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Sun 20 Feb 2011 03:33 PM

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Death toll in Libya tops 100, says rights watchdog

HRW raised its death toll estimate from 84 to 104 after four days of violence in the Arab state

Death toll in Libya tops 100, says rights watchdog
LONGTIME LEADER: 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 (Getty Images)

The death toll from four days of violence centred on the Libyan city of Benghazi has passed 100, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday, after witnesses said security forces shot dozens more anti-government protesters.

The unrest, the worst in Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's four decades in power, started out as a series of protests inspired by popular revolts in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia but was met by a fierce security crackdown.

Witnesses in the eastern city of Benghazi said security forces had pulled back to a fortified compound in the centre of the town from where they were shooting at people returning from burying protesters killed on previous days.

"Dozens were killed...We are in the midst of a massacre here," a witness told Reuters.

The man said he had helped take victims to hospital in Benghazi.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had raised its death toll estimate from the previous 84 to 104, after at least 20 more people were killed in Benghazi on Saturday.

It said that death toll, compiled from interviews with witnesses and hospital officials, was "conservative." The Libyan government has not released any casualty figures or made any official comment on the violence.

A Benghazi hospital doctor said victims had suffered severe wounds from high-velocity rifles.

The crackdown prompted about 50 Libyan Muslim religious leaders to issue an appeal, sent to Reuters, for the security forces, as Muslims, to stop the killing.

"This is an urgent appeal from religious scholars (faqihs and Sufi sheikhs), intellectuals, and clan elders from Tripoli, Bani Walid, Zintan, Jadu, Msalata, Misrata, Zawiah, and other towns and villages of the western area," said the appeal.

"We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognise that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him)... Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!"

Some analysts have said it is possible there will be negotiations between Gaddafi and eastern tribal leaders, and an SMS message sent late on Saturday to Libyan mobile phone subscribers hinted at a more conciliatory approach.

"All citizens and youth of Benghazi, those who died among the civilians and police are all sons of our country. Enough of what has happened and stop the bloodshed."

In Tripoli, several thousand Gaddafi supporters rallied in the city's Green Square until the early hours of Sunday morning, a Reuters reporter said.

They chanted "God, Libya and Muammar!" and "Muammar is the pioneer of Arab nationalism!"

Libya's state news agency said some Libyan cities had seen acts of arson and vandalism, and said it was the work of "a foreign network trained on how to create clashes and chaos so as to destabilise Libya."

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.

Gaddafi has traditionally had less support in the eastern region around Benghazi than in the rest of the oil-producing country, and the city has been the scene of violence in the past.

"Gaddafi will find it hard to make concessions in order to survive. I think the attitude of the Libyan regime is that it's all or nothing," Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya, told the Independent on Sunday newspaper.

Witness accounts have been hard to verify independently because Libyan authorities have not allowed foreign journalists into the country since the protests erupted and local reporters have been barred from travelling to Benghazi.

Mobile phone connections have often been out of service and internet service in Libya has been cut off, according to a US company that monitors web traffic. People in Tripoli said they had internet access late on Saturday.

A Benghazi resident said security forces were confined to a compound from which snipers were firing at protesters.

"Right now, the only military presence in Benghazi is confined to the Command Centre Complex in the city. The rest of the city is liberated," he said late on Saturday.

"Thousands and thousands of people have gathered in front of Benghazi's court house ... All the revolutionary committee (local government) offices and police stations in the city have been burned," he said.