Thousands of opposition protesters staged a new push Friday to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, with reports of government forces shooting at demonstrators in the capital Tripoli.
Protesters amassed in cities including Benghazi, where anti-Gadhafi forces appear to be in control. News agencies quote residents as saying forces loyal to Gadhafi opened fire in several districts of Tripoli after protesters began marching in the capital following Friday prayers.
Gadhafi speaks again
Towards dusk, Libyan state television showed Gadhafi addressing supporters in Tripoli.
The impassioned speech was directed at the the country's youth, with the Libyan leader urging them to defend the nation. Gadhafi spoke from a perch above Tripoli's Green Square, telling supporters "I am one of you."
The address was Gadhafi's third speech this week. In an audio speech carried on state television on Thursday, he accused al-Qaida forces of playing a role in the country's unrest.
Tripoli is the center of the shrinking territory that Gadhafi's regime still controls. The uprising that began last week has put the eastern part of the country under rebel control, and support for the anti-government movement is growing in the west.
On Thursday, an estimated 23 people died as violence broke out in the city of Zawiya, just 50 kilometers west of Tripoli. Heavy fighting also was reported in the city of Misurata.
Reports say a close advisor to 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 likely have 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.
Gadhafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi claimed the number of people killed by government crackdowns has been exaggerated.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.
Timeline of US-Libya relations