Forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi were fighting last night to consolidate control in what appeared to be the rapidly diminishing parts of the country not yet overrun by protesters in |rebellion against his 42-year rule.
Gaddafi's weakening grip on power came as a number of countries, including Britain, launched rescue missions for citizens stranded in Libya.
Opponents of the regime said they had now taken Misurata, outside the eastern area of the country already under rebel control, as the Libyan leader appeared increasingly confined to his redoubt in the capital. An audio statement reportedly posted on the internet by armed forces officers in Misurata proclaimed “our total support” for the protesters.
Cracks in the regime were more dramatically underlined when the Quryna website reported that two air force pilots had baled out of their Russian-made Sukhoi jet and let it crash rather than carry out orders to bomb the country's second city of Benghazi, now in the hands of protesters.
The Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini has said that estimates of 1,000 dead since the uprising began were “credible”, though he stressed that the information about casualties was incomplete.
One of the pilots who jumped with parachutes from their aircraft was identified as Ali Omar Gaddafi, according to a local resident who said he had seen the |pilots and the wreckage of the jet outside the oil port of Breqa.
That would make him a member of Muammar Gaddafi's own clan — a significant factor in Libya's heavily tribal society.
As thousands of Libyans celebrated the liberation of the eastern city of Benghazi, Hussam Ibrahim Sheri, director of its health centre, told Reuters that about 320 people had been killed in the city since the uprising began last week.
Armed Gaddafi supporters roaming the streets of Tripoli sought to maintain the Libyan leader's grip on the capital, where his palace and the downtown radio station was being guarded by loyalists and armed militiamen in vehicles, some masked, according to one witness.
But even in Tripoli, the witness, an anti-Gaddafi activist, told Associated Press that residents in many neighbourhoods had barricaded their streets with concrete blocks, metal barriers and rocks to keep out those defending the |embattled regime.
Another resident told the agency: “Mercenaries are everywhere with weapons. You can't open a window or door. Snipers hunt people.” Saying she had spent the previous night awake because of repeated gunfire, she added: “We are under siege, at the mercy of a man who is not a Muslim.”
The Los Angeles Times reported other Tripoli residents as saying some police had left their posts and that pro-government militias moving through residential streets were firing from Landcruisers. “We don't know who is in charge,” teacher Najah Kablan said. “It is very frightening.”
The claim of victory by protesters in Misurata came after several days of fighting with Gaddafi loyalists which began on February 18 and which Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor, said had claimed the lives of six people and wounded 200. He said residents were honking their car horns and flying the pre-Gaddafi flags of the Libyan monarchy.
In Benghazi, Mahmoud and Hamida had postponed celebrating their 12th wedding |anniversary because of the violence. However yesterday they decided to hold a modest lunch party with friends and relatives.
Mahmoud, an engineer, said: “We thought we should make use of this day, when there was not much fighting because we do not know what will happen in the next few days. We also wanted to say goodbye to some people who are now leaving the country.
“We shall stay but we have two young children and if the situation gets worse we shall go.”
Mahmoud's uncle Said Amar added: “The area around here has been quiet for a day but the road to Tarblis is getting very bad. We have heard about these mercenaries (supposedly from sub-Saharan Africa) who have been shooting at cars and looting houses.
“Most of these foreigners have now left Benghazi but they caught a man from Chad who was trying to drive away with things he had taken from our people in a stolen car. We heard that he was killed by the crowd that was very angry at what these people have been doing.”
As the violent crisis engulfing the country sent the price of oil up to $110 a barrel, its highest level for around three years, a group of 60 Libyan intellectuals, judges, doctors and journalists sympathetic to the protesters drew up an agenda of demands for a post-Gaddafi Libya.
This included a national assembly composed of representatives from every region to decide on a transitional government and write a new constitution.
The Associated Press, reporting from the eastern city of Tobruk, quoted an officer allied with the protesters, Lt Colonel Omar Hamza, saying: “There is now an operations room for the militaries of all the liberated cities. They are trying to help the people in Tripoli to capture Gaddafi.”
A defence committee of local residents was even guarding one of Libya's until-now highly secret anti-aircraft missile bases outside Tobruk.
As thousands of foreign residents sought to flee the Libyan capital, a Foreign Office chartered aircraft was said to be still on the tarmac at Gatwick airport four hours after it was supposed |to leave.