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“The ports, schools and airports are all open,” he said according to a Reuters news agency report. “The problem lies in the eastern regions. Life is normal. Brothers, Libyans should come together in this national battle.”

The grim mood in Tripoli contrasted with jubilation in the eastern half of the North African nation, which is largely under the control of pro-democracy groups and rebel soldiers who defected from Col. Gadhafi’s army.

Residents, including children, have been directing traffic and cleaning the streets in these eastern cities, and large crowds celebrated their victory over the Gadhafi regime.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside the courthouse in Benghazi, the second-largest city in Libya, and phone interviews with residents were punctuated by the sound of fireworks and cheering.

“In Benghazi, everyone is celebrating tonight,” said Abdullah Al-Huni, raising his voice to make himself heard over the crackle of fireworks.

People were distributing candy and fruit juice and enthusiastically hugging strangers.

On Tuesday, residents in Benghazi made a gruesome discovery when they stumbled upon a large underground prison and the remains of soldiers who had been bound and burned, ostensibly for refusing to fire at unarmed civilians.

“The prisoners were discovered after bulldozers were brought in to break through the concrete [floor],” Nabil ElHuni said.

Mr. Al-Huni and Fathi Masamri, another Benghazi resident, witnessed the scene at the barracks. Mr. Al-Huni said the charred remains of 150 soldiers had been found. Mr. Masamri saw the remains taken away in clear plastic bags.

Erratic phone connections made it difficult to contact residents in Libya, especially those living in Tripoli. Mr. Abrahams of Human Rights Watch said his group is deeply concerned about the information blackout.

“We know what ugly things can happen in the dark,” Mr. Abrahams said.

Gadhafi said in his speech that everything is fine. If everything is fine, then he should let in journalists and human rights monitors. In the absence of those watching eyes, we are deeply concerned that there can be killings, detentions, torture.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva will convene a special session on the situation in Libya on Friday. Rights groups want Libya to be kicked off the panel.

Meanwhile, checkpoints manned by Libyan forces and African mercenaries have sprung up across Tripoli as the regime tries to keep pro-democracy activists from entering the capital.

The female dissident who asked not to be named said militias sympathetic to the regime had arrested residents suspected of making international phone calls or posting anything online that was critical of the government.

“People are afraid to leave their homes; at the same time they are worried that if someone comes in, they won’t be able to defend themselves,” she said.

Residents from the eastern part of the country piled into cars and were heading to the capital to “help our brothers,” as Benghazi resident Mohamed Mustafa el-Faituri put it.

“The African mercenaries in Tripoli are showing no mercy. They have been killing people, including women and children,” said Mr. el-Faituri, who has been in touch with friends in the capital.

“We are rooting for the people of Tripoli,” he added.

In Misurata, a provincial center 130 miles east of Tripoli, residents said they received text messages with promises of money if they went out onto the streets to support Col. Gadhafi.

In hospitals, masked men noted the names of patients and seized vital supplies of blood, sources said.

“The only conclusion is that there is going to be some kind of retribution,” the female dissident said.

In Fashloum, a Tripoli neighborhood, military tanks reportedly were involved in operations on Tuesday night.

“The big question on everyone’s mind is, ‘What is going to happen next?’” Mr. Masamri said. “We are waiting for the army to come to our side, like they did in Egypt.”

Kara Rowland contributed to this report.