TRIPOLI/MANAMA (Reuters) - Members of a Libyan army unit said they had defected and “liberated” the country’s second city from forces loyal to veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi after scores of protesters were killed in the bloodiest revolt now shaking the Arab world.
Two residents of Benghazi told Reuters on Sunday that members of the army’s “Thunderbolt” squad had switched sides after days of violence that mark the most serious challenge to Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. Al Jazeera reported clashes in the capital between thousands of protesters and Gaddafi supporters.
Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have shaken the Arab world and inspired protests across the Middle East and North Africa, threatening the grip of long-entrenched leaders.
In the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, thousands of protesters gathered in a square in Manama, calling for political change and awaiting promised talks with the island’s Sunni rulers.
But after days of violence, the mood among the mainly Shi’ite protesters appeared to be more conciliatory.
Unrest also hit Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Algeria and Djibouti over the weekend as people took to the streets demanding political and economic change.
In Iran, thousands of security personnel deployed in the streets of Tehran and other cities to prevent protesters rallying in spite of a ban, opposition websites said.
But the most dramatic developments were in Libya.
Al Jazeera, citing unnamed sources, said thousands of protesters clashed with supporters of Gaddafi in Tripoli’s Green Square.
In the port city of Benghazi, two residents said members of the army’s Thunderbolt squad had arrived at the local hospital with soldiers wounded in clashes with Gaddafi’s personal guard.
“They are now saying that they have overpowered the Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people’s revolt,” lawyer Mohamed Al-Mana said by telephone. It was not possible to independently verify the information.
Habib al-Obaidi, who heads the intensive care unit at Benghazi’s Al-Jalae hospital, said at least 50 people had been killed and 100 seriously wounded since 1300 GMT on Sunday.
“Today has been a real tragedy ... since 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) and up to 9.15 pm, we received 50 dead, mostly from bullet wounds,” he said. “There are 200 wounded, 100 of them are in very serious conditions.”
Human Rights Watch said 84 people were killed on Saturday and 20 overnight, bringing the toll by Sunday morning to 173.
One witness had earlier said that many police and soldiers had joined protesters.
Another witness said security forces had opened fire on protesters demanding an end to the 41-year rule of Gaddafi, who has responded to the biggest challenge of his power with ruthless force.
Benghazi residents said tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets to bury some of the dead.
The clamor for reform across a region of huge strategic importance to the West and the source of much of its oil began in Tunisia in December. The overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali then inspired Egyptians to rise up against strongman Hosni Mubarak, overthrowing him on February 11.
The tide has challenged Arab leaders, including many who have long been backed by the West as vital energy suppliers and enemies of Islamist militants. While each uprising has its own dynamics, from religion to tribalism, all protesters seem united by frustration over economic hardship and a lack of political freedom under entrenched elites.
The United States said it was “gravely concerned” by credible reports of hundreds of deaths and injuries in Libya, and warned its citizens to delay travel there.
“Libyan officials have stated their commitment to protecting and safeguarding the right of peaceful protest,” said Philip Crowley, assistant secretary of state, in a statement.
“We call upon the Libyan government to uphold that commitment, and hold accountable any security officer who does not act in accordance with that commitment.”
U.S. Embassy dependants were being encouraged to leave the country.
In Bahrain, the main opposition party said it wanted the crown prince to show signs of addressing opposition demands before any formal dialogue could start.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Bahraini government should step up reform efforts rather than attacking peaceful protesters.
Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, of the ruling Sunni Muslim dynasty, made conciliatory noises after days of violence in which six people died.
“All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table,” he told CNN. “I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of sadness...We are terribly sorry and this is a terrible tragedy for our nation,” said the prince, who is seen as a reformist.
But Ibrahim Mattar, a lawmaker of the main opposition Wefaq party, said that they wanted the crown prince to show signs of addressing their demands before any formal dialogue could start.
“We are waiting for an initiative from him, with a scope for dialogue,” he said, adding that the prince should “send a small signal he is willing to have a constitutional monarchy.”
The opposition is demanding a constitutional monarchy that gives citizens a greater role in a directly elected government. It also wants the release of political prisoners.
On the crown prince’s orders, troops and armored vehicles left Manama’s Pearl Square on Saturday, which they had occupied after a police attack on protesters who set up a tent city there. The demonstrators quickly reoccupied the square.
Speculation was growing that Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, in office since independence from Britain in 1971, would be replaced by the crown prince, who has pushed aside for now the hawks in the royal court.
Shi’ites complain of unfair treatment in Bahrain, an ally of the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based there.
In Tunisia on Sunday, security forces fired into the air as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered downtown to call for the replacement of the interim government — a sign that problems are not all swept away with the removal of a dictator.
In Yemen, the leader of the secessionist Southern Movement was arrested and shots were fired at a demonstration in the capital Sanaa on the ninth consecutive day of unrest.
Thousands are demanding the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who called for dialogue with the opposition.
But the coalition of main opposition parties said there could be no dialogue with “bullets and sticks and thuggery,” or with a government “which gathers mercenaries to occupy public squares ... and terrorize people.”
At least 2,000 protesters gathered in a square in Morocco’s capital on Sunday to demand that King Mohammed give up some of his powers and clamp down on government corruption.
Reporting by Reuters bureau; Writing by Diana Abdallah; editing by Mark Trevelyan