By Leila Fadel and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 12:00 AM
BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Government paramilitary forces opened fire Friday on protesters who swarmed the streets of Tripoli in what opponents hoped would be a final push to topple Moammar Gaddafi's regime. Witnesses described multiple casualties from the fiercest violence yet in the Libyan capital.
It appeared that the regime had retained control, for now, of its major remaining stronghold. After the clashes, a defiant Gaddafi urged thousands of his supporters at a rally in the heart of the city to take up arms on his behalf.
Yet even as the Libyan leader spoke, his 41-year grip on power seemed to loosen further. There were reports that rebels had gained control of at least one key suburb of Tripoli, and several other towns, including heavily contested Zawiya, 20 miles west of the capital, were said to have fallen to the opposition.
High-level defections continued to weaken Gaddafi's regime, and the world community stiffened its response. The United States said it would impose sanctions, and the United Nations advanced a process that could lead to a war crimes prosecution.
Some Tripoli residents expressed fears of a prolonged siege in which rebels control towns and cities around the country while Gaddafi's forces in Tripoli dig in.
"We know the whole country is with us, but we don't know how long this is going to take," said a trader who joined the protests but went home after the gunfire became too intense. "The security forces have the upper hand, and there's so many of them, because he's concentrating all his effort on Tripoli."
While Gaddafi and his remaining allies - including his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi - promised a fight to the death, much of the country has celebrated the spreading collapse of the regime, with some taking steps to support protesters in the capital.
The day's fighting in Tripoli began shortly after midday prayers, when residents poured out of mosques to revive their protests, only to be met by gunfire from soldiers and armed pro-Gaddafi civilians.
For several hours, the protesters pressed ahead in their attempt to converge on the city's central Green Square, chanting "God is great" and anti-Gaddafi slogans. Videos posted on YouTube and Facebook showed scenes of citizens scattering under volleys of fire in several neighborhoods, then attempting to regroup.
But by nightfall the pro-government forces, including militias and paramilitary forces, appeared to gain the upper hand. Most protesters retreated indoors, witnesses said.
It was Gaddafi, wearing a Russian-style fur hat, who assembled thousands of cheering supporters in the square. Standing on the ramparts of a castle and shaking his fist, he vowed to open state arsenals and distribute weapons to protect his regime.
"Every Libyan individual will be armed, every Libyan tribe will be armed. So Libya will turn to hell," he said, the square packed with people waving green flags.
"People who don't love me don't deserve to live," he said.
The address was broadcast on state television and appeared to be live, with the camera zooming in on the clock looming over the square to show the time.
Tripoli residents huddled despondently indoors, watching the broadcast, checking on friends and wondering how many more times they would have to brave the streets before the regime falls, according to accounts from individuals reached by phone or through the Internet. News agencies said that from two to seven people had been killed, but witnesses said they feared that many more were dead.
One resident described in an e-mail seeing six bodies in one neighborhood and said pro-government forces were using heavy automatic weapons.
After seeing ambulances ferrying gunmen around the city, residents lost trust in local medical services and took the injured into their homes for treatment, said one businessman who participated in the protests.
"Everyone is very devastated," said another resident who lives near the square and watched from her window as men in sport-utility vehicles opened fire on protesters in the street below. She said she thought that as many as 60 people had been killed and knew of three who died when pro-Gaddafi gunmen stormed a mosque and opened fire on worshipers.
"We are just hearing about people dying, and it's like this isn't going to end," she said. "This guy will kill until the last day of his life."
Yet even as Gaddafi vowed he would triumph, eyewitnesses said that several areas in western Libya had fallen to the opposition and that rebels in the east were closing in on the capital.
Demonstrators claimed they had won control of the western Tripoli suburb of Janzour, nine miles from the city center, after several hours of fierce fighting.
In the Tunisian town of Ras Jdir, near the border with Libya, Libyan refugees and Egyptians escaping the violence said that the town of Zuwarah, 24 miles from the border, was also under opposition control and that citizen committees were being formed to govern.
An engineer from Zuwarah, Amar Wifati, 42, said residents were frightened by the possibility that Gaddafi loyalists could try to retake control. "But we cannot change our path now," he said. "We are finally free to express ourselves openly. This is a totally new experience for us."
The town of Zawiya, 20 miles west of Tripoli, also appeared to be under rebel control after fierce clashes there Thursday between pro- and anti-government forces, refugees said. But the nearby town of Surman appeared to remain with the government after battles were reported there, they said.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, one of the first to be controlled by opponents of the regime, huge crowds gathered to celebrate their victory and show solidarity with those still battling Gaddafi.
Before Friday prayers in Benghazi, three coffins bearing the bodies of people who had died in clashes this week were carried above the crowds. Men shouted and women wept for the dead.
During prayers, a cleric named Salem Jaber delivered an emotional sermon calling for unity and peace. He also warned that Libyans do not want foreign military intervention.
"In God's name, we've taken our step in peace," he said.
Others echoed the view that foreigners should not directly intervene on the ground during Libya's uprising. But they said they would like a no-fly zone to be implemented over Benghazi to keep Gaddafi from sending war planes to attack.
Gamiyeh al-Oreibi, 60, held a picture of his son, who he said was shot and killed Sunday. "I want Moammar Gaddafi to die in front of me," Oreibi said as he clutched a picture of his son, Muftah, 27.
Sly reported from Cairo. Correspondent Anthony Faiola in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, and staff writer Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.