CAIRO — Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was clinging to power Monday as his troops and mercenaries gunned down civilians and anti-government protesters in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, prompting international condemnation, and defections and cries of genocide from some members of his own government and military.
U.S. officials confirmed multiple reports from residents of aircraft strafing protesters on the outskirts of Tripoli. Mercenaries were firing indiscriminately into crowds, funeral processions and civilians' homes, and people were running out of food, potable water and medicine, residents said.
"The situation is serious and horrible," said a doctor reached by telephone at the city's main trauma center. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution should Gadhafi remain in power.
Libyan diplomats at the United Nations mission in New York and at other embassies worldwide broke with Gadhafi's regime Monday. Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. representative, called on Gadhafi to resign and urged the world to speak out. The regime is committing "a real genocide against the Libyan people. Colonel Gadhafi is shooting his own people," Dabbashi said in an interview on the al Jazeera network.
The turmoil raged on the sixth day of an uprising against Gadhafi that's claimed hundreds of lives and left the second largest city, Benghazi, and other population centers on the country's eastern wing in the hands of troops who defected to the opposition and armed civilians.
The insurrection against Gadhafi, the Middle East's longest ruling dictator, is the most dramatic of the uprisings inspired across the region by the largely peaceful revolts that ousted the former presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, rooted in pent-up popular anger over corruption, poverty, abuses and a lack of political rights.
The uprising began with the arrest of a prominent lawyer in Benghazi and spread along the eastern side of the Gulf of Sidra, reaching the regime's stronghold of Tripoli on Sunday evening.
Events in Libya, one of the Middle East's main oil producers, pushed petroleum prices higher, complicating President Barack Obama's efforts to keep the delicate U.S. economic recovery on track and adjust a U.S. approach to the region that's long favored its dictators and kings over the political and human rights of ordinary people.
There were rising calls for the U.N. Security Council to address the Libyan government's assault on civilians. A senior U.S. official, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record, wouldn't rule out an emergency Security Council meeting, but said there were no plans yet for one.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement Monday evening that "now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed" and that the U.S. is "working urgently with friends and partners around the world to convey this message to the Libyan government."
Internet and landline telephone service was cut, electricity was erratic and cell phone circuits were constantly overloaded. Protesters vowed to hold out until Gadhafi left, while other residents cowered in their homes.
At the trauma center, doctors donated their own blood to try to keep up with the demand. Two to three new casualties, all gunshot victims, were arriving every half-hour, the anonymous doctor said, and dozens of dead had been brought in since Sunday.
One Tripoli man who gave only his first name, Massey, said in an interview via Skype that the violence in Tripoli broke open late Sunday night moments after Gadhafi's son, Saif al Islam Gadhafi, delivered a rambling speech warning of the potential for civil war.
Gadhafi security forces and mercenaries "began shooting at the crowds indiscriminately" in Green Square, where protesters from Tripoli and other Libyan cities had flocked, holding hands and demanding Gadhafi's departure. "Many people began falling down."
Monday morning, Massey found about 70 corpses at a nearby park. He said witnesses are describing killings largely as being carried out by African mercenaries, including in the working-class neighborhood of Ghout Shaal and along heavily populated Republic Street, which leads to Bab Elezizya, Gadhafi's compound.
As of 1 a.m. Tuesday local time, he said, "There is gunfire going on nonstop. It's basically a war zone," He said protesters were largely unarmed.
One Tripoli woman, who spoke with McClatchy from her home by cell phone, said, "I can hear some shots and some airplanes. Everybody is in the house and cannot go outside. We are frightened and closing our doors. I'm trying to stay calm for the children."
"We are expecting a disaster tonight," said another woman who said her employer was evacuating its foreign staff but that the local staff had nowhere to go. "I don't know if I'm going to be alive tomorrow."
In Benghazi, thousands celebrated in the streets and many predicted that the violence in Tripoli would eventually force Gadhafi out.
Some rode around in cars, waving the flag of Libya's former monarchy, which Gadhafi and a group of other mid-level officers overthrew in 1969.
Others met to form committees to run the city in the absence of a government said Muftah, a Libyan who previously studied journalism in South Carolina and spoke by phone with McClatchy on condition his last name be withheld. "They are not going to go peacefully," he said of Gadhafi and his sons. "They are going to take a lot of people with them. They are going to make a bloodbath."
Activists in Tripoli implored Obama, the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League to intervene. The U.S. and other foreign governments were evacuating non-essential personnel as were several international petroleum companies.
"The Libyan people are being slaughtered," said activist Adel Mohamed Saleh, speaking on al Jazeera before Clinton released her statement. "How can you all stand silent? We don't even have knives and are facing bullets with our bare chests."
Two Libyan fighter pilots defected to the island nation of Malta rather than carry out orders to bomb government opponents who took control of Benghazi.
Egypt's foreign minister, meanwhile, condemned Saif al Islam Gadhafi's assertion that Egyptians were behind the unrest. Egypt set up makeshift camps and field hospitals on the country's border with Libya to house Egyptians and Libyans fleeing the violence.
Libya's state television reported that Gadhafi's son was opening a query into the killings of Libyans. State television also denied reports of officials handing in their resignations, and showed pictures of loyal Libyans holding up pictures of Gaddafi and chanting, "Allah, Moammar, Libya."
State television showed a clip of Gadhafi in a car saying contrary to earlier rumors, he hadn't fled the country. "I'm still here," he said.
(Naggar, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Cairo. Landay and Talev reported from Washington. Warren P. Strobel and Greg Gordon in Washington contributed to this report.)
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