Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, has deployed security forces across the country to restore order amid reports that police had thrown in their lot with protesters to take control of a town in north-east Libya.
In the last three days at least 46 people have been shot dead by security forces, said Amnesty International, and the toll could be much higher. Most of the unrest has focused away from the capital in places such as Benghazi, Libya's second city, where support for the regime is much weaker.
In the town of al-Bayda, where at least 16 people were killed a day earlier, policemen defected to the side of protesters, effectively seizing control of the town, according to exiled opposition groups. There were later reports of clashes after the government sent in reinforcements to retake the town.
Tens of thousands of people in Benghazi attended funerals of protesters following Friday prayers even as loyalists of Colonel Gaddafi, who has ruled the country since 1969, issued a stark warning to anyone thinking of joining the protests.
"The response of the people and the revolutionary forces to any adventure by these small groups will be sharp and violent," the Revolutionary Committees, which are the backbone of Colonel Gaddafi's regime, said on their website, Agence France-Presse reported. Opponents of the regime had called for a "Day of Rage" across Libya, hoping to emulate the revolts that have swept long-serving dictators from power in Tunisia and Egypt. The protests quickly descended into bloody scenes as security forces moved in.A doctor at the al-Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi later said he'd seen the bodies of at least 35 people killed yesterday afternoon.
Protesters are calling for political reform, but also complain of high unemployment and inflation, gripes that echo those of many other people in the Arab region. So far, the mood in the capital Tripoli has been more subdued. State television showed supporters cheering Colonel Gaddafi as he toured Tripoli in his limousine.
Non-governmental groups have condemned the regime for the rising number of deaths . The toll rose further yesterday when at least four people were killed near Tripoli and in al-Bayda.