CAIRO, Feb 20 – More than 100 people have died in an iron-fisted security crackdown in unrest-swept eastern Libya, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday, fearing a "catastrophe" as protests spread closer to the capital.
Witnesses told AFP by telephone that security forces clashed with anti-regime demonstrators in the Mediterranean city of Misrata, 200 kilometres (120 miles) from Tripoli.
Demonstrators were out on the streets of Misrata in a show of support for residents of Benghazi who have endured the brunt of a violent crackdown in eastern Libya, they said.
They said Libyan security forces, backed by "African mercenaries", had been "shooting without discrimination" into the crowds.
Amnesty International urged Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi to "immediately rein in his security forces amid reports of machine guns and other weapons being used against protestors and a spiralling death toll."
The death toll in the anti-Kadhafi protests raging since Tuesday has reached at least 104, said Human Rights Watch (HRW), which cited reports from medics and witnesses.
"It\’s an incomplete picture because communications with Libya is extremely difficult," HRW\’s Tom Porteous told AFP by telephone.
"We are very concerned that under the communication blackout that has fallen on Libya since yesterday a human rights catastrophe is unfolding," said the director of its London office.
The bloodshed reached a peak in Libya\’s second city Benghazi on Saturday when mourners heading to funerals of people killed by security forces targeted a military barracks on the route to the cemetery, a newspaper editor told AFP.
A medical official at Al-Jalal hospital in Benghazi told HRW he had received 20 dead bodies on Saturday evening, and a further 25 demonstrators in critical condition, most of them with gunshot wounds.
Before the latest round of bloodshed in Benghazi flared on Saturday, the New York-based HRW said security forces had already killed more than 80 anti-regime protesters in eastern Libya earlier in the week.
Porteous said the government had shut down all Internet communications in Libya since late Saturday and that interference on phone services had made it "extremely difficult to get information."
After regime opponents used Facebook to mobilise the initial protests, the social networking website has since been blocked and Internet connections unreliable, according to Tripoli and Benghazi residents.
Speaking to Al-Jazeera television on a patchy telephone line, a Benghazi resident warned that the flashpoint city of Benghazi was turning into a scene of "out of sight massacres."
"It feels like an open warzone between protesters and security forces," said Fathi Terbeel, a protest organiser in Benghazi. "Our numbers show that more than 200 people have been killed… God have mercy on them."
In Al-Baida, another city at the centre of the unrest, "Islamist extremists" have taken hostage members of the security forces and civilians, a senior Libyan official, asking not to be named, told AFP on Sunday.
Justice Minister Mustafa Abdeljalil started negotiations late on Saturday for the release of the hostages, he said. "But we will not negotiate over Libya\’s integrity under any circumstances."
Britain has deplored what it branded a "horrifying" crackdown, and US President Barack Obama has condemned the use of violence against peaceful protesters in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen as unrest sweeps the Middle East.
Austria on Sunday announced it was sending a military plane to Malta in readiness to evacuate European citizens from Libya or other Arab countries, after Washington cautioned US citizens to stay away from eastern Libya.
Kadhafi, 68, is the longest-serving leader in the Arab world. His oil-producing North African state was long a Western pariah, but relations had improved markedly in recent years.
The veteran ruler has made no public comment on the unprecedented challenge to his four-decade regime, part of a region-wide wave of popular uprisings that have already toppled the regimes in Libya\’s neighbours Tunisia and Egypt.