BENGHAZI, Libya – Army units and militiamen loyal to Moammar Gadhafi struck back against protesters who have risen up in cities close to the capital Thursday, attacking a mosque where many had taken refuge and blasting its minaret and opening fire on others protecting a local airport.
The assaults aimed to push back a rebellion that has moved closer to Gadhafi's bastion in the capital, Tripoli. The revolt has already broken away nearly the eastern half of Libya and unraveled parts of Gadhafi's regime.
In the latest blow to the Libyan leader, a cousin who is one of his closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, announced that he has defected to Egypt in protest against the regime's bloody crackdown against the uprising, denouncing what he called "grave violations to human rights and human and international laws."
In the city of Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, an army unit attacked a mosque where protesters had been camping inside and in a lot outside for several days, calling for Gadhafi's ouster, a witness said. The soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons and hit the mosque's minaret with anti-aircraft missiles, he said. Some of the young men among the protesters had hunting rifles.
He said there were casualties, but couldn't provide exact figures. He said a day earlier an envoy from Gadhafi had come to the city and warned protesters, "Either leave or you will see a massacre." Zawiya is a key city near an oil port and refineries.
"What is happening is horrible, those who attacked us are not the mercenaries; they are sons of our country," he said, sobbing. After the assault, thousands massed in the city's main Martyrs Square, shouting "leave, leave," in reference to Gadhafi, he said.
"People came to send a clear message: we are not afraid of death or your bullets," he said. "This regime will regret it. History will not forgive them."
The other attack came at a small airport outside Misrata, Libya's third largest city, where rebels claimed control on Wednesday. Militiamen on Thursday attacked a line of residents who were protecting the facility, opening fire with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, said a resident who saw the assault
"They left piles of human remains and swamp of blood," he said. "The hospitals are packed with those killed and injured." But he could not provide exact figures.
After the attack ended before noon, another Misrata resident said the local radio, now in opposition hands, urged people to march on the airport in support of the protesters. Both residents said the rebellion continues to control the city, located about 120 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli. They and other witnesses around Libya spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Gadhafi's crackdown has so far helped him maintain control of Tripoli, a city that holds about a third of Libya's 6 million population. But the uprising by protesters, backed by army units that joined their ranks, has divided the country and threatened to push it toward civil war.
The leader's cousin, Gadhaf al-Dam, is one of the most high level defections to hit the regime so far, after many ambassadors around the world, the justice minister and the interior minister all sided with the protesters. Gadhaf al-Dam belonged to Gadhafi's inner circle, officially his liaison with Egypt, but he also served as Gadhafi's envoy to other world leaders and frequently appeared by his side.
In a statement issued in Cairo on Thursday, Gadhaf al-Dam said he had left Libya for Egypt "in protest and to show disagreement" with the crackdown.
International momentum has been building for action to punish Gadhafi's regime for the bloodshed.
President Barack Obama said the suffering in Libya "is outrageous and it is unacceptable," and he directed his administration to prepare a full range of options, including possible sanctions that could freeze the assets and ban travel to the U.S. by Libyan officials.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the possibility of the European Union cutting off economic ties.
Another proposal gaining some traction was for the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent it using warplanes to hit protesters. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that if reports of such strikes are confirmed, "there's an immediate need for that level of protection."
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
Moammar Gadhafi's son claimed Thursday that the reported death tolls have been exaggerated, although he didn't provide his own figure. In a press conference aired on state TV, he said the number killed by police and the army had been limited and "talking about hundreds and thousands (killed) is a joke."
He also said a committee had been formed to investigate alleged foreign involvement in the protests.
Earlier Thursday, Libyan TV showed Egyptian passports, CDs and cell phones purportedly belonging to detainees who had allegedly confessed to plotting "terrorist" operations against the Libyan people. Other footage showed a dozen men lying on the ground, with their faces down, blindfolded and handcuffed. Rifles and guns were laid out next to them.