BENGHAZI, Libya – Militiamen loyal to Moammar Gadhafi clamped down in Tripoli Wednesday, but cracks in his regime spread elsewhere across the nation, as the protest-fueled rebellion controlling much of eastern Libya claimed new gains closer to the capital. Two pilots let their warplane crash in the desert, parachuting to safety, rather than bomb an opposition-held city.
The opposition said it had taken over Misrata, which would be the largest city in the western half in the country to fall into its hands. Clashes broke out over the past two days in the town of Sabratha, about 50 miles west of the capital, where the army and militiamen were trying to put down protesters who overwhelmed security headquarters and government buildings, a news website close to the government reported.
Two air force pilots parachuted from their Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet and let it crash, rather than carry out orders to bomb opposition-held Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, the website Qureyna reported, citing an unidentified officer in the air force control room.
One of the pilots — identified by the report as Ali Omar Gadhafi — was from Gadhafi's tribe, the Gadhadhfa, said Farag al-Maghrabi, a local resident who saw the pilots and the wreckage in a deserted area outside the key oil port of Breqa.
International outrage mounted after Gadhafi went on state TV Tuesday and in a fist-pounding speech called on his supporters to take to the streets to hunt down protesters. His retaliation has already been the harshest of any regime confronting anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East.
The U.N.'s top human rights official said a no-fly zone could be imposed over Libya to protect civilians from attacks by government aircraft. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Wednesday if unconfirmed reports of aerial attacks against civilians turned out to be true, "I think there's an immediate need for that level of protection."
The United States and the European Union vowed Wednesday to consider sanctions against Libya for Moammar Gadhafi's fierce crackdown on protesters, with the EU calling the attacks possible "crimes against humanity."
"The continuing brutal and bloody repression against the Libyan civilian population is revolting," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement Wednesday, raising the possibility of cutting off all economic and business ties between the EU and Libya. "The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights."
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney also condemned the attacks.
"The violence is abhorrent, it is completely unacceptable and the bloodshed must stop," Carney said.
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
In Tripoli, militiamen and Gadhafi supporters were roaming main streets, firing weapons in the air from time to time as they chanted "long live Gadhafi" and waved green flags. In many neighborhoods, residents had set up watch groups to keep them out, barricading their streets with concrete blocks, metal and rocks and searching those trying to enter, said a Tripoli activist. Many were passing out fliers announcing a march by protesters on Tripoli on Friday, urging residents to take refuge in mosques in case violence erupts.
Gadhafi's residence at Tripoli's Aziziya Gates was guarded by loyalists, waving his picture and chanting slogans, along with a line of armed militiamen in vehicles, some masked, he said. The radio station building downtown was also heavily fortified.
"Mercenaries are everywhere with weapons. You can't open a window or door. Snipers hunt people," said another resident, who said she had spent the last night in her home awake hearing gunfire outside. "We are under siege, at the mercy of a man who is not a Muslim."
But below the surface, protesters were organizing, said the activist. At night, they fan out and spray-paint anti-Gadhafi graffiti or set fires near police stations, chanting "the people want the ouster of the regime," before running at the approach of militiamen, he said.
A group of 60 intellectuals, judges, doctors and journalists linked to the protesters drew up a list of demands for the post-Gadhafi era, calling for a national assembly formed of representatives from each region to draw up a transitional government and write a constitution, the activist said.
Libya's upheaval, just over a week old, has shattered the hold of Gadhafi's regime across much of the country. Protesters claim to hold towns and cities along nearly the entire eastern half of the 1,000-mile Mediterranean coastline, from the Egyptian border. In parts, they have set up their own jury-rigged self-administrations.
At the Egyptian border, guards had fled, and local tribal elders have formed local committees to take their place. "Welcome to the new Libya," a graffiti spray-painted at the crossing proclaimed. Fawzy Ignashy, a former soldier, now in civilian clothes at the border, said that early in the protests, some commanders ordered troops to fire on protesters, but then tribal leaders stepped in and ordered them to stop.
"They did because they were from here. So the officers fled," he said.
A defense committee of local residents was even guarding one of Gadhafi's once highly secretive anti-aircraft missile bases outside the city of Tobruk.
"This is the first time I've seen missiles like these up close," admitted Abdelsalam al-Gedani, one of the guards, dressed in an overcoat and carrying a Kalashnikov automatic rifle.
"There is now an operating room for the militaries of all the liberated cities and they are trying to convince the others to join them," said Lt. Col. Omar Hamza, an army officer who had allied with the protesters. "They are trying to help the people in Tripoli to capture Gadhafi."
Protesters have claimed control all the way to the city of Ajdabiya, about 480 miles (800 kilometers) east of Tripoli, encroaching on the key oil fields around the Gulf of Sidra.
That has left Gadhafi's power centered around Tripoli, in the far west and parts of the country's center. But that appeared to be weakening in parts.
Protesters in Libya's third-largest city Misrata were claiming victory after several days of fighting with Gadhafi loyalists in the city, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli.
Residents were honking horns in celebration and raising the pre-Gadhafi flags of the Libyan monarchy, said Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor. He said six people had been killed and 200 wounded in clashes that began Feb. 18 and eventually drove out pro-Gadhafi militiamen.
Residents had formed committees to clean the streets, protect the city and treat the injured, he said. "The solidarity among the people here is amazing, even the disabled are helping out."
An audio statement posted on the Internet was reportedly from armed forces officers in Misrata proclaiming "our total support" for the protesters.
New videos posted by Libya's opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the flag from the pre-Gadhafi monarchy on a building in Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli. Another showed protesters lining up cement blocks and setting tires ablaze to fortify positions on a square inside the capital.
The footage couldn't be independently confirmed.
Further west, armed forces deployed in Sabratha, a town famed for nearby ancient Roman ruins, in a bid to regain control after protesters burned government buildings and police stations, the Qureyna news website reported. It said clashes had erupted between soldiers and residents in the past nights and that residents were also reporting an influx of pro-Gadhafi militias that have led heaviest crackdown on protesters.
The opposition also claimed control in Zwara, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the Tunisian border in the west, after local army units sided with the protesters and police fled.
"The situation here is very secure, the people here have organized security committees, and there are people who have joined us from the army," said a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate in Zwara. "This man (Gadhafi) has reached the point that he's saying he will bring armies from African (to fight protesters). That means he is isolated," he said.
The division of the country — and defection of some army units to the protesters — raises the possibility the opposition could try an assault on the capital. On the Internet, there were calls by protesters for all policemen, armed forces and youth to march to Tripoli on Friday.
In his speech Tuesday night, Gadhafi defiantly vowed to fight to his "last drop of blood" and roared at supporters to strike back against Libyan protesters to defend his embattled regime.
"You men and women who love Gadhafi ... get out of your homes and fill the streets," Gadhafi said. "Leave your homes and attack them in their lairs."
Gadhafi appears to have lost the support of several tribes and his own diplomats, including Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Adjali, and deputy U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi.
The Libyan Embassy in Austria also condemned the use of "excessive violence against peaceful demonstrators" and said in a statement Wednesday that it was representing the Libyan people.
International alarm has risen over the crisis, and is sending oil prices soaring and European and other countries scrambling to get their citizens out of the North African nation. On Wednesday, oil prices hit $100 per barrel for the first time since 2008. Libya is the world's 15th largest exporter of crude, accounting for 2 percent of global daily output. Traders are worried the revolt could threaten Libya's oil production and spread to other countries in the region.
The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Tuesday that ended with a statement condemning the crackdown, expressing "grave concern" and calling for an "immediate end to the violence" and steps to address the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.
After a meeting of EU ambassadors, the bloc did not announce sanctions, but EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU stood "ready to take further measures" beyond suspending talks on a bilateral deal.
The precise measures were still being negotiated, a senior EU official said, adding that there were up to 10,000 EU citizens in Libya, sparking worries about getting them out of the North African country safely. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Italian news reports have said witnesses and hospital sources in Libya are estimating there are 1,000 dead in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, alone.
"We have no complete information about the number of people who have died," Frattini said in a speech to a Catholic organization in Rome ahead of a briefing in Parliament on Libya. "We believe that the estimates of about 1,000 are credible."
Libya is the biggest supplier of oil to Italy, which has extensive energy, construction and other business interests in the north African country and decades of strong ties.
Frattini said the Italian government is asking that the "horrible bloodshed" cease immediately.