CAIRO – Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi drove through his nation's capital in a motorcade, drawing a cheering crowd as the long-time ruler tried to rally support amid reports of widening anti-government protests.
Protests have erupted in several cities in Libya this week, especially in the east, and the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said Friday that 24 people were killed in unrest on Wednesday and Thursday.
Gadhafi's open-roofed car slowly made its way through the streets of the capital Tripoli late Thursday. In footage broadcast by Libyan TV, the motorcade was thronged by cheering supporters. Some pushed toward the car to try to reach Gadhafi and shake hands. "We do not want any other leader but Gadhafi!" one woman shouted.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, hundreds of protesters camped out Friday in the center of the city. Calls to join funeral processions for those killed in clashes with pro-government forces spread on Facebook and websites.
One of the protesters, Nizar Jebail, owner of an advertising company, said he spent the night in front of the city's court building. He said he wants not just reforms, "but freedom and equality."
"There are lawyers, judges, men and some women here, demanding the ouster of Gadhafi. Forty-two years of dictatorship are enough," he told The Associated Press by phone.
"We don't have tents yet but residents provided us with blankets and food. We learned from Tunisia and Egypt," he said.
The wave of protests that has swept across the Middle East has brought unprecedented pressure on leaders like Gadhafi who have held virtually unchecked power for decades.
As in Egypt and Yemen, however, government supporters have clashed with the demonstrators and Jebail said his brother and nephew are in critical condition after being beaten by the Libyan leader's Revolutionary Committees.
Other eyewitnesses in Berka district in Benghazi said African refugees carrying Gadhafi pictures and green flags were bussed in, chanting "long live Gadhafi."
The move to restore Gadhafi's image came as the Libyan opposition said police in some cities had gone over to the protesters.
According to Mohammed Ali Abdullah, deputy leader of the exiled National Front for the Salvation of Libya, said that because local police and residents in the town of Beyda belong to the same tribe, "it was impossible for the police to keep attacking its own people." His account could not be independently verified.
Libyan state run TV and news agency JANA showed thousands of people rallying behind Gadhafi's convoy, which toured Tripoli late Thursday.
Meanwhile, a pro-Gadhafi online paper Quryna said that Gadhafi's son, al-Saadi, a wealthy businessman and a former football player has visited security forces in eastern region where many of the protests took place to offer financial help.