The son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi went on state television to proclaim that his father remained in charge with the army’s backing and would “fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet”.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s comments came after anti-government unrest spread to the capital Tripoli and protesters seized military bases and weapons.
In the regime’s first comments on the six days of demonstrations, the younger Gaddafi warned the protesters last night that they risked igniting a civil war in which Libya’s oil wealth “will be burned”.
His rambling and sometimes confused speech, lasting nearly 40 minutes, followed a fierce crackdown by security forces who fired on thousands of demonstrators and funeral marchers in the eastern city of Benghazi in a bloody cycle of violence that killed 60 people yesterday alone, according to a doctor in one city hospital.
Since the six days of unrest began, more than 200 people have been killed, according to medical officials, human rights groups and exiled dissidents.
Libya’s response has been the harshest of any Arab country wracked by the protests that toppled long-serving leaders in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt. But Gaddafi said his father would prevail.
“We are not Tunisia and Egypt,” he said. “Muammar Gaddafi, our leader, is leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him.”
“The armed forces are with him. Tens of thousands are heading here to be with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet,” he said.
Saif Gaddafi, who is the regime’s face of reform, admitted that the army made some mistakes during the protests because the troops were not trained to deal with demonstrators, but he insisted that the number of dead had been exaggerated, giving a death toll of 84.
Western countries have expressed concern at the rising violence against demonstrators in Libya.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said he spoke to Gaddafi’s son by phone and told him that the country must embark on “dialogue and implement reforms”.
In the speech, Saif Gaddafi offered to put forward reforms within days that he described as a “historic national initiative” and said the regime was willing to remove some restrictions and begin discussions for a constitution.
He offered to change a number of laws, including those covering the media and the penal code.
Protesters had seized some military bases, tanks and other weapons, he said, blaming Islamists, the media, thugs, drunks and drug abusers and foreigners - including Egyptians and Tunisians.
He also admitted that the unrest had spread to Tripoli, with people firing in central Green Square before fleeing.
Dressed in a dark business suit, Saif Gaddafi wagged his finger frequently as he delivered his warnings. He said that if protests continued, Libya would slide back to ``colonial'' rule.
“You will get Americans and European fleets coming your way and they will occupy you,” he said.
He threatened to “eradicate the pockets of sedition” and said the army would play a main role in restoring order.
“There has to be a firm stand,” he said. “This is not the Tunisian or Egyptian army.”
The rebellion by Libyans frustrated with Gaddafi’s more than 40 years of authoritarian rule has spread to more than a half-dozen eastern cities – but also to Tripoli, where secret police were heavily deployed on the streets of the city of two million.
Armed security forces were seen on rooftops surrounding Green Square, a witness said by telephone. The witness added that a group of about 200 lawyers and judges were protesting inside a Tripoli court, which was also surrounded by security forces.
An exiled opposition leader in Cairo said hundreds of protesters were near the Bab al-Aziziya military camp where Gaddafi lives on Tripoli’s outskirts. Faiz Jibril said his contacts inside Libya were also reporting that hundreds of protesters had gathered in another central plaza, Martyrs Square.
In other setbacks for Gaddafi’s regime, a major tribe in Libya was reported to have turned against him and Libya’s representative to the Arab League said he had resigned in protest at the government’s decision to fire on the Benghazi demonstrators.
Khaled Abu Bakr, a resident of Sabratha, an ancient Roman city to the west, said protesters besieged the local security headquarters, driving out police and setting it on fire. He said residents were in charge and had set up neighbourhood committees to secure their city.
The internet has been largely shut down, residents can no longer make international calls from landlines and journalists cannot work freely, but eyewitness reports trickling out of the country suggested that protesters were fighting back more forcefully against the Middle East’s longest-serving leader.
“We are not afraid. We won’t turn back,” said a teacher who identified herself only as Omneya. She said she was marching at the end of the funeral procession on a road beside the Mediterranean and heard gunfire from just over a mile away.
“If we don’t continue, this vile man would crush us with his tanks and bulldozers. If we don’t, we won’t ever be free,” she said.
The US State Department said today it was gravely concerned about reports of the protest killings.
Spokesman Philip Crowley said the US had raised strong objections with Libyan officials, including foreign minister Musa Kusa, about the use of lethal force against demonstrators.
Mr Crowley says the US reiterated “the importance of universal rights, including freedom of speech and peaceful assembly”.