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Raucous supporters rally around Libyan leader after day of violence

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Protests, arrests continue in Libya
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: State TV shows throngs of raucous supporters around Gadhafi's limo in Tripoli
  • Security forces killed 7 after protesters got violent, a pro-Gadhafi report says
  • Using social media, Libyans called "A Day of Rage" and protested in several cities
  • A source tells CNN that Gadhafi is acutely aware of what is unfolding in the region

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(CNN) -- Raucous pro-government demonstrators took to the streets of Libya's capital overnight Thursday, state television reported, hours after at least seven were killed in clashes between security forces and those opposed to the North African nation's longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Images from state television, labeled as "live" at what would be early Friday morning, featured men chanting pro-Gadhafi slogans, waving flags and singing around the Libyan leader's limousine as it crept through Tripoli.

Scores of supportive demonstrators packed the roadway and held up pictures of their leader, in power for four decades, as fireworks occasionally dotted the night sky. At multiple points, Gadhafi playfully popped up from his vehicle's sun roof to acknowledge the support.

That positive scene -- as well as reports out Thursday that Libya had released 110 political prisoners and would convene a committee to examine major changes to its government -- appeared a far cry from what had happened earlier in the day in Benghazi. There, in Libya's second largest city, human rights groups and protesters themselves claimed they were attacked by pro-government security forces.

Demonstrations also took place elsewhere in Libya following calls posted on websites for a "Day of Rage" on Thursday, the five-year anniversary of an incident in which security forces killed at least 12 protesters.

Over the last several days, confrontations between anti-government factions and security forces have contributed to at least 21 deaths in the North African nation -- a figure that CNN, which does not have journalists in Libya, could not independently confirm. Officials at international human rights groups have said that they fear that death toll may be too low.

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Despite movement in recent years toward free expression, information is still difficult to get out of Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's government retains control over most of the nation's media and monitors and censors the fledgling private media outlets.

Ahmed Elgasir, a researcher at the Geneva, Switzerland-based Libyan Human Rights Solidarity, said that serious clashes between protesters and security forces occurred Thursday in Benghazi, located on Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast.

Citing an unnamed security source, the pro-Gadhafi publication Quryna reported that seven people were killed and "a number" of others wounded when security forces used live ammunition after demonstrators became "violent."

The report claimed that protesters targeted government buildings, burned police stations and inflicted other damage around Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city.

A protester told CNN by phone that about 3,000 people gathered after midday prayers at the seaside corniche and marched toward the courthouse. The demonstrator, whose name has been withheld for safety reasons, said police -- some without uniforms and others in riot gear -- wielded knives and fired live ammunition to disperse the crowds.

The protester said that the crowds, angered by state television's portrayal of previous pro-Gadhafi demonstrations, grew to the thousands. They chanted anti-Gadhafi slogans and "Peace!"

Mohammed Ali Abdallah of the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya said that, as night fell Thursday, he still was receiving reports from his sources of ongoing clashes in Benghazi. That included reports, he said, of snipers targeting protesters.

The day before, at least 38 people were injured when police fired tear gas and used batons to disperse crowds in Benghazi, Quryna said

Novelist Idris al-Mismari told the Al-Jazeera network that plainclothes security officers used tear gas, batons and hot water on the crowds. During his live interview, the line went dead. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that he was arrested then.

One of the protesters likened the situation in Libya to Egypt, telling Human Rights Watch that "they are sending baltaqiyyas (thugs) to beat us."

Abdallah also reported protests in other towns across Libya -- Darna, Ijdadia, Kufra, Zintan and Al-Bayda. Medical sources told him five people died in Albeyda, he said.

Abdulla Darrat, spokesman for Enough Gaddafi, an anti-Gadhafi Libyan exile group in the United States, told CNN that hospitals in Al-Bayda were inundated and that doctors were running out of medical supplies to treat the injured.

Elgasir, of Libyan Human Rights Solidarity, said his group's sources on the ground said 10 people were killed in Al-Bayda on Thursday and that the city was surrounded by security forces. He said he was unable to contact people in Al-Bayda on Thursday because the internet and cell phone text messaging had been shut down.

He said his own group's website has been hacked since last November last year, after it presented a report on Libya to the U.N. Human Rights Council. The agency has not been able to get its site back up, he said.

Elgasir also said demonstrations were taking place in Zentan, south of Tripoli.

Human Rights Watch reported that security forces had arrested at least 14 Libyans in connection with the demonstrations. Among them were human rights activists, journalists, lawyers and two key members of the families of people involved in an alleged 1996 massacre at the Abu Salim jail.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Libya should listen to its people.

And U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had made clear that "countries across the region have the same kind of challenge in terms of the demographics, the aspirations of their people, the need for reform," he said.

"And we encourage these countries to take specific actions that address the aspirations and the needs and hopes of their people," Crowley said in a news briefing Wednesday. "Libya certainly would be in that same category."

In fact, an independent source told CNN that Gadhafi is acutely aware of discontent with the government and has been moving to address popular grievances before they surfaced on the streets.

Libya, like many of its Arab neighbors, is suffering from economic hardship and a lack of political reform. Unemployment rates among the nation's youth are high.

Gadhafi has spoken with groups of students, lawyers and journalists in the past few weeks, the source told CNN.

On one occasion, the longtime ruler appointed an outspoken member of the lawyers' union as its leader, removing the syndicate's old guard, according to the source. He also promised action to address the country's housing crisis.

On Thursday, state television reported that 110 members of Al-jam'a Al-libyia Al-Muqatila, also known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, were let out of prison Thursday, part of a planned release coordinated by a charity led by Moammar Gadhafi's son Saif.

Quryna reported on the same day that a government group, dubbed the Secretary Committee of the People's Conference, plans to make major changes to Libya's government.

The committee's reforms will affect executive branches of government and also include moves aimed at better supporting local government administrators, Quryna reported.

The highly placed Libyan source close to the government sought to downplay the reports of unrest. The source asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

"There is nothing serious here," the source said Wednesday. "These are just young people fighting each other."

Libya, he said, is not Egypt.

CNN's Tim Lister, Salma Abdelaziz, Yousif Basil, Ingrid Formanek and Moni Basu contributed to this story.

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