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Fri 18 Feb 2011 12:49 PM

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Libya soldiers in Benghazi after overnight protests

Overnight anti- and pro-Gaddafi demonstrations rock major oil exporter

Libya soldiers in Benghazi after overnight protests
Supporters of Muammar Gaddafi hold his picture as they take part in a pro-government rally in Tripoli (Getty Images)

Soldiers were deployed on the streets of Libya's second city of Benghazi on Friday after thousands of people took to the streets overnight to protest about security forces killing more than 20 protesters.

New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said that according to its sources inside the country, Libyan security forces had killed at least 24 people in crackdowns on protests on Wednesday and Thursday.

The killings happened after opponents of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's leader for more than 40 years, designated Thursday as a day of protest to try to emulate uprisings in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia which ousted entrenched leaders.

A resident who lives on Benghazi's main thoroughfare, Nasser Street, told Reuters on Friday morning the city was now quiet, with no more demonstrations.

But he said: "Last night was very hard, there were a lot of people in the street, thousands of people. I saw soldiers in the street. I heard shooting. I saw one person fall down (from a gunshot wound) but I don't have a figure for casualties."

BBC radio, quoting an eyewitness, said doctors had counted the bodies of 10 people after the clashes in Benghazi, which is about 1,000 km east of the Libyan capital.

Another resident in Benghazi, who said he had been in contact with people in the nearby town of al Bayda, told Reuters: "The confrontation between protesters and Gaddafi supporters is still going on, some of the police have become angry. There are a lot of people killed."

Local sources had earlier told Reuters that at least five people were killed in al Bayda.

The resident also said that Saadi Gaddafi, a businessman son of the Libyan leader, had been on local radio and said he was coming to Benghazi to take over as mayor of the city and protect the people there.

Saadi Gaddafi holds senior military rank and was briefly employed as a player by Italian professional football clubs.

Funerals of those killed were expected in both Benghazi and Al Bayda on Friday. Such funerals could act as a catalyst for further protests.

On Thursday deadly clashes broke out in several towns after the opposition called for protests in a rare show of defiance inspired by uprisings in other Arab states and the toppling of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine al Abidine Ben Ali.

Tight controls on media and communications in Libya made it difficult to assess the extent of the violence, but on Friday unverified reports on social network sites said up to 50 people had died. There was no official comment on the violence.

Human Rights Watch said the Libyan authorities should respect citizens' rights to protest peacefully. "Libyans should not have to risk their lives to make a stand for their rights as human beings," the group said in a statement.

An official source in Benghazi, who did not want to be identified, said the overnight clashes took place around the city's Giuliana bridge.

"Everything is now under control. Security forces are now in the whole city and Benghazi is controlled by Saadi (Gaddafi)," the source said.

Political analysts say Libya oil wealth should give the government the capacity to smooth over social problems and reduce the risk of an Egypt-style revolt.

Gaddafi's opponents say they want political freedoms, respect for human rights and an end to corruption. Gaddafi says Libyans enjoy true democracy.

Pro-government supporters also were out on the streets early on Friday, according to CNN. The broadcaster said images transmitted on Libyan state television labelled "live" showed men chanting slogans in support of Gaddafi.

The pro-Gaddafi crowd was seen singing as it surrounded his limousine as it crept along a road in the capital packed with people carrying his portrait. Fireworks lit up the night sky.

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