- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2011

The United States is “gravely concerned” about the widespread violence in Libya, as reports Sunday said the country’s second-largest city, Benghazi, was in the hands of rebel soldiers and anti-government protesters who had occupied the official residence of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

“The president is being kept up to speed on events in Libya,” a senior administration official told The Washington Times late Sunday.

“In Benghazi and in the coastal areas, we are very concerned about reports of security forces firing on peaceful protesters,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice said.

“We’ve condemned that violence,” she told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Our view is that in Libya, as throughout the region, the peaceful protests need to be respected.”

A statement from the U.S. State Department later Sunday added that officials are “gravely concerned with disturbing reports and images coming out of Libya,” where human-rights groups say as many as 200 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces in recent days.

“We are working to ascertain the facts,” said the statement from spokesman P.J. Crowley.

He said the U.S. has raised concerns with “a number of Libyan officials, including Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kasa, our strong objections to the use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators.”

Residents of Benghazi in eastern Libya told reporters by telephone that the city was liberated after soldiers threw their lot with the protesters about 8 p.m. local time.

“Benghazi is free,” a resident named only as Maari told Al Jazeera English TV. “Now it is all over. The whole system has just collapsed,” he added.

He said members of pro-Gadhafi security forces had left the city.

“They had no choice. We had them surrounded for three days,” he said, noting that the protesters had taken heavy casualties in the past 48 hours but had fought back with “homemade bombs.”

Another resident, Yasid, told the television network that “Gadhafi’s residence [in Benghazi] is now under the control of the people,” after rebel military units in the town defected and joined the protesters.

“There is no one supporting Gadhafi in Benghazi,” he said, “The army is with the people.”

Other reports said more than 100,000 protesters had taken to streets in funeral processions Sunday and that soldiers had told officials at a hospital they had overpowered forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi.

The reports could not be independently confirmed because the Libyan government has banned reporters from the city.

The U.S. Embassy in the capital, Tripoli, advised U.S. nationals against any travel to Benghazi and other eastern cities, including Ajdabiya, Al-Bayda, Al Marj, Derna and Tobruk. The embassy is offering free flights out of Libya to the families of embassy staff.

In an address on Libyan state television, Col. Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam — who is being groomed as his father’s successor — denied reports of hundreds of casualties and said there is a foreign-inspired plot to divide the country.

Moammar Gadhafi, our leader, is leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him,” said Mr. al-Islam, pledging to “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.”

He also promised a meeting on Monday of the General People’s Congress, Libya’s rubber-stamp parliament.

Libya is not Egypt. Libya is not Tunisia,” Mr. al-Islam said repeatedly, referring to other Arab countries where dictators have recently been overthrown by popular protests. He warned the revolt could lead to “40 years of civil war” and divide the country like Korea.

The senior Obama administration official said the White House was analyzing Mr. al-Islam’s speech “to see what possibilities it contains for meaningful reform.”

In a diplomatic blow to the regime, the Libyan ambassador to the Arab League resigned to join the protests.

“I have submitted my resignation in protest against the acts of repression and violence against demonstrators [in Libya],” Ambassador Abdel Moneim al-Honi told reporters at Arab League headquarters in Cairo.

“I am joining the ranks of the revolution,” he said.

Speaking on Al Jazeera Arabic television, another Libyan diplomat, based in China, said that Col. Gadhafi had left the country for Venezuela and that there had been a gunfight involving members of his family. The report could not be confirmed, and U.S. officials declined to comment. The diplomat, who was not identified, resigned live on air during the interview, Al Jazeera said.

However, Col. Gadhafi’s son told Libyan state television that his father is in the country and is backed by the army.

“We will fight to the last minute, until the last bullet,” Mr. al-Islam said.

Al Jazeera, whose live, nonstop coverage has played a big role in fanning protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa, also said over the weekend that its satellite transmissions across the region had been jammed.

Libya, which Col. Gadhafi has ruled for more than 40 years, is a major energy producer with significant investment from European and U.S. oil companies. In a phone call to Mr. al-Islam on Sunday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Libya to begin a dialogue with anti-government protesters and implement reforms.

Col. Gadhafi’s fate may hinge on whether the unrest remains confined largely to the eastern Cyrenaica region around Benghazi, where his support has traditionally been weaker than in other parts of the country.

But Sunday night there were scattered reports of protests in Tripoli, where protesters were said to stoning billboard portraits of Col. Gadhafi.

• Kara Rowland contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.