CAIRO — The International Criminal Court in The Hague opened a war crimes investigation into Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his sons Thursday amid growing reports of widespread human rights violations in a conflict that now seems likely to last for weeks.
A prominent human rights group said it's tracking a worrisome pattern of arrests and disappearances of suspected regime opponents, and there were reports that Egyptian and Tunisian migrants in Libya were being attacked by Gadhafi loyalists angry that the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had inspired anti-Gadhafi protests there.
With Gadhafi's forces failing to recover key rebellious cities and towns, and with the ragtag rebel force of civilians and military defectors too weak and disorganized to advance on Gadhafi's Tripoli stronghold, the two-week conflict appeared to be devolving into a bloody impasse.
"There is a sense that there is a patchwork of control across Libya," said a U.S. official, who was tracking the crisis from Washington and requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "The real question is can the opposition break through to Tripoli, or can Gadhafi break out? The odds are that he is going to have a hard time reclaiming areas that he has lost."
Governments across the Middle East, meanwhile, braced for what were expected to be massive pro-reform protests after mosques empty on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer.
In an apparent bid to placate expected protesters in Cairo, Egypt's military rulers on Thursday announced the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, a former general who was named to his post by ousted president Hosni Mubarak. His replacement, Essam Sharaf, is a college professor and a former transportation minister.
A brief statement on the military's website said Sharaf would soon form a caretaker cabinet to steer Egypt back to civilian authority.
In The Hague, Netherlands, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced the opening of an investigation into allegations that Gadhafi and his inner circle had committed crimes in unleashing their forces against unarmed protesters in the early days of Libya's insurrection.
"No one has the authority to attack and massacre civilians. As soon as someone commits crimes, this is our business to investigate it and try and stop it," Louis Moreno-Ocampo said.
Libya has seen the bloodiest of the region's uprisings. Hundreds of protesters are thought to have been killed in onslaughts by Gadhafi's security forces.
The U.N. Security Council had asked the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes by the regime in a sanctions resolution approved Saturday. It also banned arms sales and froze the assets of top officials.
Moreno-Ocampo said his targets are Gadhafi and "his inner circle, including some of his sons, who had this de facto authority. There are also some people with formal authority who should pay attention to crimes committed by their people."
While mentioning no one else by name, he said the other suspects included foreign mercenaries, the commander of the 32nd Brigade, Gadhafi's national security adviser and the heads of his feared security services. Gadhafi's son Khamis commands the 32nd Brigade. Another son, Mutassim, is his national security adviser.
Once the investigation is complete, Moreno-Ocampo will present his findings to the court's judges, who could issue arrest warrants.
A regime spokesman, Musa Ibrahim, told the BBC that the court's investigation was "close to a joke" and based on news reports.
"We have armed gangs having tanks, aircraft and machine guns and attacking police stations, army camps, ports and airports and occupying Libyan cities," Ibrahim said of the rebels. "This is far away from a peaceful movement."
Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the group is tracking a disturbing trend of arrests and disappearances of suspected regime opponents in the western rebel-controlled city of Misrata, as well as the capital and largest city, Tripoli.
The number disappearances is in the "50s and 60s" in Misrata alone, including three brothers from one family who were arrested and now are missing, she said.
"It's pretty worrying, because it's the targeting of everyone who's spoken to the media, who's passed along information," said Morayef, who'd just returned to Cairo from research in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. "It's pretty standard practice for internal security."
In Tripoli, which Gadhafi's forces still control, the apparent crackdown shows that "the security state is still very strong, very alive," she added.
The disappearances don't appear to be restricted to Tripoli and Misrata.
A resident reached by telephone in Tajura, a town under Gadhafi's control some 20 miles southeast of Tripoli, said that men have been taking people away and not bringing them back, including one of his relatives.
The resident, whose name McClatchy is withholding for his safety, said one of his relatives had been taken from his office on Wednesday and hasn't been seen since.
The resident said the town is pervaded by fear.
"Nobody can speak in front of anybody because you can't be sure if they're with the government or no," he said. "Usually in the night, we stay in the house because every night we hear the gunshots, and maybe they are using this for some people, or just so people can be scared to stay in their house.
Amnesty International and the U.N. refugee agency said that Egyptian and Tunisian migrants have been targeted for attacks because the uprisings in their countries sparked the insurrection against Gadhafi.
"Government forces are blaming this whole thing on the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in Geneva.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed 237 people dead alone in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the insurrection began, and 417 nationwide.
But like journalists and aid groups, Human Rights Watch has had trouble pinning down exact figures. It relies on information from medical sources, Morayef said, but the climate of fear and retaliation compels many families to stay away from hospitals.
"People aren't even taking their wounded to hospital because of reprisal attacks," she said.
In Benghazi, "Ambulances were targeted by snipers, and this is what could happen in Tripoli."
(Allam reported from Cairo, Landay from Washington. Ameera Butt of the Merced-Sun Star contributed to this report from Merced, Calif.)
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