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In response, Col. Gadhafi’s security forces have unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

Anywhere from 233 to 250 people are known to have been killed so far, according to estimates by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Those numbers don’t appear to include casualties from two days of deadly attacks on protesters in the capital, Tripoli — a sign of the difficulty of getting information out of the highly closed North African Nation.

A doctor in the eastern city of Benghazi told the Associated Press a colleague at Tripoli’s main hospital told him 41 people were killed in Tripoli during clashes Sunday night alone, but the number could not be confirmed, and it was not known how many died Monday and Tuesday. A Tunisian doctor on his side of the border crossing with Libya said he saw many Libyans wounded on the other side, waiting but blocked from crossing to get treatment.

The head of the U.N. agency, Navi Pillay, called for an investigation, saying widespread and systematic attacks against civilians “may amount to crimes against humanity.”

The first major protests to hit an OPEC country — and major supplier to Europe — sent oil prices soaring to more than $93 a barrel Tuesday. A string of international oil companies have begun evacuating their expatriate workers or their families, and the Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF said it suspended production in Libya on Tuesday. It accounted for about 3.8 percent of Libya’s total production of 1.6 million barrels a day.

World leaders also have expressed outrage. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Gadhafi to “stop this unacceptable bloodshed” and said the world was watching the events “with alarm.”

From nightfall Monday to dawn Tuesday, the pro-regime militias that have taken the forefront in the crackdown — a mixture of Libyans and foreign mercenaries — besieged protesters in at least five neighborhoods across the capital of 2 million people.

One of the heaviest battlegrounds was the impoverished, densely populated district of Fashloum, one resident there told the AP. Militiamen shot any “moving human being” with live ammunition, including ambulances, so wounded were left in the streets to die, the resident said.

He said that as he fled the neighborhood Monday night, he ran across a group of militiamen, including foreign fighters. “The Libyans [among them] warned me to leave and showed me bodies of the dead and told me: ‘We were given orders to shot anybody who moves in the place,’” said the resident.

Like others reached in Libya he spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation. Western media are largely barred from Libya and the report couldn’t be independently confirmed.

Another resident said commandos were in control of the streets and were stationed on rooftops, opening fire. “Life is paralyzed, even those who were shot can’t go to hospital,” he said. “No one is able to walk in the street.”

The week of upheaval in Libya has weakened — if not broken for now — the control of Col. Gadhafi’s regime in parts of the east. Protesters claim to control a string of cities across just under half of Libya’s 1,000 mile-long Mediterranean coast, from the Egyptian border in the east to the city of Ajdabiya, an important site in the oil fields of central Libya, said Tawfiq al-Shahbi, a protest organizer in the eastern city of Tobruk. He said had visited the crossing station into Egypt and that border guards had fled.

In Tobruk and Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, protesters were raising the pre-Gadhafi flag of Libya’s monarchy on public buildings, he and other protesters said.

Protesters and local tribesmen were protecting several oil fields and facilities around Ajdabiya, said Ahmed al-Zawi, a resident there. They had also organized watch groups to guard streets and entrances to the city, he said.

The day before, crowds of residents were looting a nearby military base for weapons, when a warplane flew overhead and dropped a bomb in a nearby open area, blasting a crater but causing no casualties, said Mr. al-Zawi, who was among those seizing ammunition, automatic weapons and grenades from the camp.

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