CAIRO -- Moammar Gadhafi's regime vowed on Friday to snuff any further attempt to challenge the Libyan leader, after an opposition "day of anger" turned into a bloodbath that a rights group said cost at least 24 lives.
"The response of the people and the Revolutionary Forces to any adventure by these small groups will be sharp and violent," the Revolutionary Committees said on the website of their newspaper, Azzahf Al-Akhdar [Green March].
The committees are the backbone of Gadhafi's regime.
"The power of the people, the Jamahiriya [government by the masses], the Revolution and the leader are all red lines, and anyone who tries to cross or approach them will be committing suicide and playing with fire."
The tough line came after security forces on Thursday gunned down at least eight people in Benghazi and 16 in Al-Baida, according to a detailed account from Human Rights Watch that quoted unidentified witnesses.
A medical source in Benghazi, speaking to AFP on Friday, put the death toll there at 14 -- a figure confirmed by the chief editor of a local newspaper, who described the situation in the city on Friday as calm.
"The security forces' vicious attacks on peaceful demonstrators lay bare the reality of Moamer Gaddafi's brutality when faced with any internal dissent," said HRW's Middle East and North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson.
Iraq, meanwhile, denied an Arab League summit set for March 29 in Baghdad -- the first since popular unrest in the Middle East flared up last month -- had been postponed, as the Libyan presidency of the pan-Arab group had said.
Gadhafi, 68, is the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, but his oil-producing North African nation is bookended by Tunisia and Egypt, whose longtime leaders have been toppled in the face of popular uprisings.
Opponents of his regime used Facebook to call for a national "day of anger" for Thursday, but Gadhafi sought to counter its impact with his own pro-regime rally in the heart of the capital Tripoli.
Hundreds joined the rally in Green Square, near the capital's waterfront, hoisting banners proclaiming "Gadhafi, father of the people" and "the crowd supports the revolution and its leader".
Gadhafi himself turned up briefly in the early hours of Friday, getting a rapturous welcome, according to images on state television which also showed what it called similar rallies in Benghazi, Sirte and other cities.
The Revolutionary Committees have said they will not allow protesters to "plunder the achievements of the people and threaten the safety of citizens and the country's stability".
In Libya's second city Benghazi, HRW said hundreds of lawyers, activists and other protesters had gathered on Thursday at the local courthouse to call for a constitution and respect for the rule of law.
The New York-based watchdog said it was able to confirm eight deaths in the ensuing violence, in which security forces charged the protesters to disperse them, although one of its sources said at least 17 may have been killed.
A medical official in Benghazi had earlier said that seven had been killed on Thursday, the third straight day of unrest in the Mediterranean city known as an opposition stronghold.
In Al-Baida city, meanwhile, HRW said an injured protester sitting near the intensive care unit in a local hospital had confirmed security forces had shot dead 16 people. About 70 others were wounded.
"He said that special forces and armed men in street clothes fired live ammunition to deter protesters," who had been chanting such slogans as "Down with the regime" and "Get out Moammar Gadhafi," it said.
Elsewhere on Thursday, in the inland city of Zentan, protesters set fire to local premises of the Revolutionary Committees offices and the security forces, the Libyan newspaper Quryna reported on its website.
Quryna, which is close to Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam, cited official sources as putting the death toll in Al-Baida at two. It traced the unrest on Thursday to a police shutdown of local shops that soon escalated.
On Thursday night, Ramadan Briki, chief editor of Quryna who is based in Benghazi, said gunfire rang out in several parts of the city on the third straight day of protests against Gadhafi.
Britain, France and the European Union have called for restraint by the authorities in Libya, whose relations with the West have improved sharply over the past decade after years of virtual pariah status.
On Thursday, Amnesty International said: "The police in Libya, as elsewhere, have a responsibility to ensure public safety, but this does not extend to using lethal or excessive force against peaceful protesters."
© AFP 2013