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Protesters Begin Marching in Libyan Capital

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Protesters in Libya staged a new push to oust long-time leader Moammar Gadhafi Friday, with reports of gunfire against demonstrators in the capital.

News agency reports quote residents as saying forces loyal to Mr. Gadhafi fired shots to disperse protesters who began marching in Tripoli after Friday prayers.

Gadhafi opponents had called for people to turn out in the capital Friday after prayers.

Rebel forces say they have control of the country's east, and support for the anti-government movement is growing in the west, formerly the stronghold of Mr. Gadhafi.

On Thursday, an estimated 23 people died as violence broke out in the city of Zawiya, just 50 kilometers west of Tripoli. Heavy fighting was also reported in the city of Misurata.

Speaking by telephone to state television Thursday, Mr. Gadhafi accused his opponents of being under the sway of Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Gadhafi directed his address to the citizens of Zawiya. In a rambling discourse, he said al-Qaida forces had given hallucinogenic drugs to the city's youth to incite unrest. Independent news reports do not link al-Qaida to the uprising.

Reports say a close advisor to Mr. Gadhafi has stepped down to protest the bloody crackdown. Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam is one of the highest level defectors to leave the regime. Many Libyan ambassadors around the world, the justice minister and the interior minister all sided with the protesters.

The force that has attacked rebels on behalf of the government is one that Colonel Gadhafi – distrustful of his own generals – has built up steadily for years. It is made up of special brigades headed by his sons, segments of the military loyal to his native tribe and its allies, and legions of African mercenaries.

Armed militiamen and pro-Gadhafi loyalists are reportedly roaming through Tripoli shooting opponents from sport utility vehicles. Security agents are said to be searching for people considered disloyal to the regime.

The overall death toll has been impossible to determine but is said to be in the hundreds. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Wednesday more than 1,000 people have likely been killed in Libya's week-long uprising. Tens of thousands are fleeing the country – to Tunisia, Egypt and Malta – including members of the government.

Mr. Gadhafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi claimed the number of people killed by government crackdowns has been exaggerated.

The U.S. State Department said Libyan officials told them teams of journalists would be allowed to visit the country, but that reporters who entered illegally risked arrest and could be considered al-Qaida collaborators. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi said Libya intends to provide Western journalists access to Tripoli and other cities so they can corroborate the government's claim that it remains in control.

February 25, 2011

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