GENEVA Anti-government protesters have seized control of the eastern Libyan city of al Bayda after they were joined by some local police, two Libyan exile groups said on Friday.
But later both Swiss-based groups, citing contacts in the city, said government militias had been rapidly reinforced and were now attacking to retake al Bayda, with the people fighting back with any weapons they could find.
"Al Bayda is in the hands of the people," Giumma el-Omami of the Libyan Human Rights Solidarity group told Reuters in Geneva.
"The city is out of the control of the (Muammar) Gaddafi regime," said Fathi al-Warfali of the Libyan Committee for Truth and Justice.
The reports, which the two groups said were based on their own telephone contacts with the city of some 250,000 people, could not be independently verified.
Both groups, which link exiles opposed to the Libyan leader in several European countries, said the protesters took over in al Bayda on Thursday amid a wave of anger against the dispatch of non-Arab militias from Tripoli to put down demonstrations.
"Some members of the police force were also so angry that they joined the people, and fought the militias," said el-Omami. Both groups said that up to 35 people had been killed in al Bayda and hundreds were injured.
"Everyone is in the street demanding that the regime get out, they are calling for liberty and democracy. The message is always the same: Gaddafi get out," said al-Warfali.
But both later reported that the militias, believed to be from largely French-speaking north African countries, were being reinforced and were attacking the town with tanks.
"The troops with tanks are now attacking al Bayda, they are trying to retake the town," said al Warfali.
"The Libyan regime has sent more militias to the city. The people have armed themselves with what they can find. We fear terrible bloodshed," said el-Omami.
He said the non-Arab militias were normally used for security around Tripoli, especially on the road to the airport, and were under the command of Khamees al-Gaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader.
Protesters had also set fire on Thursday to the Labarj military airport outside of al Bayda, according to al Warfali. It had been used to bring soldiers from Tripoli to reinforce the town. "The airport is closed now," he said at mid-day on Friday.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Robert Evans; editing by Mark Heinrich)