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Fresh reports of Tripoli fighting - air base may have fallen to rebels

Protesters in the Libyan capital Tripoli braved deadly fire from loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi today as his opponents in other cities braced for a fightback by a regime suffering new defections.

Unconfirmed reports also claimed that Mitiga airforce base just outside Tripoli has fallen to rebels after a series of defections. The base had been used by aircraft which bombed Benghazi and other locations, and confirmation of the development would mean a major turning point in the fight against Col Gaddafi.

Meanwhile, outraged Western governments have scrambled to craft a collective response to the bloody crackdown in the oil-rich North African state, including possible sanctions against Gaddafi and his lieutenants and a freeze on assets they are believed to have salted away abroad.

But governments are constrained by fears of reprisals against their people still stranded amid what escaping expatriates described as hellish scenes as evacuation efforts dragged on into the 11th day of the crisis.

In Tripoli, security forces opened fire indiscriminately on worshippers leaving prayers, desperate to prevent any new protests on the weekly Muslim day of rest, residents told AFP by telephone.

Two people were killed in the Fashlum neighbourhood, several more in Sug al-Jomaa, witnesses said.

Both are eastern suburbs where security forces had opened fire on previous days, but sustained gunfire was also reported in the western district of Ghut Ashaal.

With police and troops deployed in force outside their mosques, prayer leaders followed texts for their sermons that had been imposed by the authorities calling for an end to "sedition," worshippers said.

In Libya's third city Misrata, 150 kilometres (100 miles) east of the capital, residents were expected to turn out in force for the funerals of 30 people killed as they helped evict regime loyalists, a resident said.

With some 500 loyal troops of the Hamza Brigade still holed up at a nearby air base, volunteers were helping to fortify the city with containers and sandbags, the resident told AFP by telephone.

The second city Benghazi, where the unprecedented protests against Gaddafi's four-decade rule first erupted, remained firmly in the hands of rebels, an AFP correspondent said.

But the initial euphoria of the eastern city's liberation was giving way to fear that its weak defences could be vulnerable to a counter-attack.

At the barracks of the Al-Saiqa (Thunderbolt) special forces unit, an officer who gave his name as Colonel Said said: "For now, we are readying ourselves here. We are expecting an attack on Benghazi at any moment."

In the city's courthouse square where the demonstrations started, the faithful gathered for their first Friday prayers free of Gaddafi 's rule.

Delivering his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising, prayer leader imam Salem Jaber vowed: "We will not abandon Tripoli," to chants of "Allahu akhbar (God is greatest) from the congregation.

Already depleted, Gaddafi's regime faced fresh defections, including that of his cousin and close aide Kadhaf al-Dam, who quit "all his official functions," Egyptian state media reported.

Libya's ambassadors to France and to the UN cultural organisation UNESCO also resigned, the latest in a string of foreign envoys to announce they were "joining the revolution."

The Paris embassy had already been seized by protesters calling themselves the "children of the revolution."

State television said Libyan families would be eligible to receive $400 (290 euros) each and that some public sector workers could get pay rises of as much as 150 percent as Kadhafi's regime sought to deploy its oil wealth to shore up dwindling support.

But the website of the official JANA news agency (Jananews.ly) was inaccessible in Tripoli from yesterday evening, apparently brought down by cyber-activists.

Leading an international outcry over the regime's brutal crackdown, US President Barack Obama consulted the leaders of Britain, France and Italy on how to "immediately" respond.

Britain and France both called on the UN Security Council to impose sanctions and for members of the Libyan regime to face prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council met in special session to consider calls to expel Libya over a crackdown that High Commissioner Navi Pillay said was "escalating alarmingly".

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said it was time for the 27-nation bloc to adopt "restrictive measures" of its own against Kadhafi's regime, which could include an assets freeze and a travel ban.

US officials said no option had been ruled out, but State Department spokesman Philip Crowley stressed the extreme sensitivity of the situation.

"Whatever steps that we do take, we want them to be effective. And we certainly don't want to take any actions that put either our citizens or the citizens of other countries at risk," he said.

Western governments faced mounting domestic criticism for their failure to organise evacuations more speedily as oil workers stranded in remote desert camps spoke of their supplies being looted amid growing lawlessness.

ITALY PREPARING 'MILITARY OPERATION'

Italy is preparing a "military operation" to rescue some nationals trapped in the southeast whose food has run out, Defence Minister Ignazio La Russia said. He gave no further details.

Crude prices rose again as markets continued to fret about the turmoil in the Middle East despite a promise from the OPEC oil cartel to make up for any loss of production in Libya.

Brent North Sea crude for delivery in April rose 76 cents to $112.12 per barrel, having rocketed the previous day to $119.79 -- the highest level since August 22, 2008 -- before sliding lower as many traders took profits.

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