TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libya's Muammar Gaddafi used tanks, helicopters and warplanes to fight a growing revolt, witnesses said on Tuesday, as the veteran leader scoffed at reports he was fleeing after four decades in power.
The U.N. refugee agency urged to Libya's neighbors not to turn back those fleeing the violence, as hundreds of refugees streamed into Egypt on tractors and trucks, describing a wave of killing and banditry unleashed by the revolt.
In the eastern town of Al Bayda, resident Marai Al Mahry told Reuters by telephone that 26 people including his brother Ahmed had been shot dead overnight by Gaddafi loyalists.
"They shoot you just for walking on the street," he said, sobbing uncontrollably as he appealed for help.
Protesters were attacked with tanks and warplanes, he said.
"The only thing we can do now is not give up, no surrender, no going back. We will die anyways, whether we like it or not. It is clear that they don't care whether we live or not. This is genocide," said Mahry, 42.
In Tripoli, residents told Reuters there was no visible security force presence on the streets. The only police present were directing traffic, they said, the day after reports that warplanes had bombed portions of the capital and mercenaries had shot civilians.
Refugees fleeing into Egypt told of a wave of violence and crime.
"Five people died on the street where I live," Mohamed Jalaly, 40, told Reuters at Salum on his way to Cairo from Benghazi. "You leave Benghazi and then you have ... nothing but gangs and youths with weapons," he added. "The way from Benghazi is extremely dangerous," he said.
Libyan guards have withdrawn from their side of the border and Egypt's new military rulers -- who took power following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak on February11 -- said the main crossing would be kept open round-the-clock to allow the sick and wounded to enter.
Libyan security forces have cracked down fiercely on demonstrators across the country, with fighting spreading to Tripoli after erupting in Libya's oil-producing east last week, in a reaction to decades of repression and following uprisings that have toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
Human Rights Watch says at least 233 people have been killed and opposition groups put the figure much higher but independent verification is impossible.
The revolt in OPEC member Libya has driven oil prices to a 2 1/2 year high above $108 a barrel.
As the fighting has intensified some supporters have abandoned Gaddafi. Tripoli's envoy to India, Ali al-Essawi, resigned and told Reuters that African mercenaries had been recruited to help put down protests.
"The fall of Gaddafi is the imperative of the people in streets," he said. The justice minister also quit and a group of army officers urged soldiers to "join the people." Two pilots flew their warplanes to nearby Malta.
DEFIANCE AND CONDEMNATION
Gaddafi's son Saif on Sunday vowed his father would keep fighting "until the last man standing" and the Libyan leader appeared on television after days of seclusion to dismiss reports he had fled to the Venezuela of his ally Hugo Chavez.
"I want to show that I'm in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs," said Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya with a mixture of populism and tight control since taking power in a military coup in 1969.
World powers have condemned the use of force against protesters, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accusing Libya of firing on civilians from warplanes and helicopters. The Security Council was to discuss Libya at 9 a.m. EST.
Washington and Europe have demanded an end to the violence and Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "A ruling family, threatening its people with civil war, has reached the end of the line."
Demonstrations spread to Tripoli from the second city Benghazi, cradle of the revolt that has engulfed a number of towns and which residents say is now in the hands of protestors.
Residents said anxious shoppers were queuing outside stores to try to stock up on food and drink. Some shops were closed.
In Tripoli, one resident said locals were patrolling their neighborhood at night to protect it from roaming mercenaries, reporting sniper fire and the use of military transport helicopters to ferry security forces about.
"Gaddafi obviously does not have any limits. We knew he was crazy, but it's still a terrible shock to see him turning mercenaries on his own people and just mowing down unarmed demonstrators," he told Lisa Goldman, a Canadian-Israeli journalist based in Tel Aviv.
Spain's Repsol suspended all operations in Libya and trade sources reported operations at Libyan oil ports had been disrupted due to the unrest. Others said gas supplies from Libya to Italy had slowed since Late Monday but Italy said they had not yet been interrupted.
Shell said it was pulling out its expatriate staff from Libya temporarily and a number of states were seeking to evacuate their nationals.
The upheavals which deposed the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt have shaken the Arab world and inspired protests across the Middle East and North Africa, threatening the grip of long-entrenched autocratic leaders.
A flamboyant figure with his flowing robes and bevy of female bodyguards, Gaddafi was famously branded a "mad dog" by one U.S. president and has long been accused by the West of links to terrorism and revolutionary movements.
But this changed when Libya renounced its weapons of mass destruction to secure an end to its international isolation and a rapprochement with western governments, keen to tap its oil and gas wealth and lucrative trade and investment deals.