CAIRO: A "day of anger" against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi turned into a bloodbath when security forces gunned down at least 24 people in two of the country’s biggest cities, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
In a detailed account of the unrest in Benghazi and Al-Baida, the New York-based organization — quoting unidentified witnesses — told of security forces opening fire with live ammunition on peaceful demonstrators on Thursday.
"The security forces’ vicious attacks on peaceful demonstrators lay bare the reality of Moamer Kadhafi’s brutality when faced with any internal dissent," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"Libyans should not have to risk their lives to make a stand for their rights as human beings."
Kadhafi, 68, is the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, but his oil-producing North African nation is bookended by Tunisia and Egypt, whose longtime leaders have fallen spectacularly in the face of popular uprisings.
Opponents of his regime used Facebook to call for a national "day of anger" for Thursday, but Kadahfi sought to counter its impact with his own pro-regime rally in the heart of the capital Tripoli.
Hundreds joined the rally in Green Square, near the capital’s waterfront, hoisting banners proclaiming "Kadhafi, father of the people" and "the crowd supports the revolution and its leader".
Kadhafi himself turned up briefly in the early hours of Friday, getting a rapturous welcome, according to images on state television which also showed what it called similar rallies in Benghazi, Sirte and other cities.
The Revolutionary Committees, the backbone of Kadhafi’s regime, have said they will not allow protesters to "plunder the achievements of the people and threaten the safety of citizens and the country’s stability".
In Libya’s second city Benghazi, Human Rights Watch said hundreds of lawyers, activists and other protesters had gathered on Thursday at the local courthouse to call for a constitution and respect for the rule of law.
Human Rights Watch said it was able to confirm eight deaths in the ensuing violence, in which security forces charged the protesters to disperse them, although one of its sources said at least 17 may have been killed.
A medical official in Benghazi had earlier said that seven had been killed on Thursday, the third straight day of unrest in the Mediterranean city known as an opposition stronghold.
In Al-Baida city, meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said an injured protester sitting near the intensive care unit in a local hospital had confirmed that security forces had shot dead 16 people. About 70 others were wounded.
"He said that Special Forces and armed men in street clothes fired live ammunition to deter protesters," who had been chanting such slogans as "Down with the regime" and "Get out Moamer Kadhafi," it said.
Elsewhere on Thursday, in the inland city of Zentan, protesters set fire to local premises of the Revolutionary Committees offices and the security forces, the Libyan newspaper Quryna reported on its website.
Quryna, which is close to Kadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam, cited official sources as putting the death toll in Al-Baida at two. It traced the unrest on Thursday to a police shutdown of local shops that soon escalated.
The Al Youm and Al-Manara websites reported "violent clashes" in Benghazi in which 35 were hurt, while Libya Watch said at least four were killed when "security forces and militias of the Revolutionary Committees used live ammunition to disperse a peaceful demonstration by the youth of Al-Baida".
On Thursday night, Ramadan Briki, chief editor of Quryna in Benghazi, said gunfire rang out in several parts of the city on the third straight day of protests against Kadhafi.
"It is the first time that we have heard shooting in the city," Briki told AFP.
"Given the difficulties, we are unable to know if there are fatalities or not."
Britain, France and the European Union have called for restraint by the authorities in Libya, whose relations with the West have improved sharply over the past decade after years of virtual pariah status.
London-based human rights group Amnesty International denounced the use of excessive force, in a statement on Thursday.
"The police in Libya, as elsewhere, have a responsibility to ensure public safety, but this does not extend to using lethal or excessive force against peaceful protesters," its Middle East and North Africa director Malcolm Smart said.