TRIPOLI, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Libya forces have killed dozens of protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi in the latest violence to threaten Muammar Gaddafi's authority, with national Muslim leaders appealing for an end to the growing death toll.
Before the latest reports of deaths, Human Rights Watch said 84 people had been killed over three days in a fierce security crackdown mounted in response to anti-government protests that seek to emulate uprisings in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.
Britain's Independent on Sunday said the body count in Benghazi may be as high as 200.
"Dozens were killed ... not 15, dozens. We are in the midst of a massacre here," a witness told Al Jazeera television. The man said he helped take the victims to hospital in Benghazi, Libya's second city.
The broadcaster on Sunday reported some security personnel captured by protesters appeared to be foreign mercenaries. Earlier, the channel said, security forces fired at mourners at a funeral killing at least 15 people.
Witness accounts have been hard to independently verify because Libyan authorities have not allowed foreign journalists into the country since the protests against Gaddafi erupted and local reporters have been barred from travelling to Benghazi.
Mobile phone connections have been frequently out of service and Internet service in Libya has been cut off, according to a U.S. company that monitors web traffic.
A Benghazi hopsital doctor said victims had suffered severe wounds from high-velocity rifles. Comments on social network sites suggested one man was hit by an anti-aircraft missile.
"Gaddafi will find it hard to make concessions in order to survive. I think the attitude of the Libyan regime is that it's all or nothing," Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya, told the newspaper.
The bloody crackdown prompted about 50 Libyan Muslim religious leaders to issue an appeal, sent to Reuters, for the security forces, as Muslims, to stop the killing.
"This is an urgent appeal from religious scholars (faqihs and Sufi sheikhs), intellectuals, and clan elders from Tripoli, Bani Walid, Zintan, Jadu, Msalata, Misrata, Zawiah, and other towns and villages of the western area," said the appeal.
"We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him)... Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!"
A Benghazi resident said security forces were confined to a compound from which snipers were firing at protesters.
"Right now, the only military presence in Benghazi is confined to the Command Centre Complex in the city. The rest of the city is liberated," he said.
"Thousands and thousands of people have gathered in front of Benghazi's court house....All of the revolutionary committee (local government) offices and police stations in the city have been burned," he said.
The account could not be independently verified and a security source earlier gave a different version, saying the situation in the Benghazi region was "80 percent under control".
The private Quryna newspaper, which is based in Benghazi and has been linked to one of Gaddafi's sons, said 24 people were killed in Benghazi on Friday. It said security forces fired to stop protesters attacking the police headquarters and a military base where weapons were stored.
"The guards were forced to use bullets," the paper said.
Italy's Ansa news agency quoted an Italian witness in Benghazi as saying the city was "completely out of control".
"All the government and institutional buildings and a bank have been burnt, and the rebels have ransacked and destroyed everything. There's no one on the streets, not even the police," said the witness, who declined to be identified.
The government has not released any casualty figures or made any official comment on the violence.
CALM IN TRIPOLI
The violence has been largely concentrated around Benghazi, some 1,000 km (625 miles) east of the capital, where support for Gaddafi traditionally has been weaker than in the rest of the country. There was no clear sign of a nationwide revolt.
In Green Square in the centre of Tripoli, next to the walled old city, several hundred people gathered on Saturday, waving portraits of Gaddafi and chanting "Our revolutionary leader!" and "We follow your path", a Reuters reporter said.
A state-controlled newspaper said the violence was part of "the dirty plans and the conspiracies designed by America and Zionism and the traitors of the West".
State television showed footage of one of Gaddafi's sons, Saadi Gaddafi, who was this week put in charge of Benghazi, touring Green Square. He was cheered by about 1,000 people, most of them supporters of the capital's two main soccer clubs, Al-Ahly and Al-Ettihad.
The crowd chanted "God, Libya and Muammar only."
Libya watchers say an Egypt-style nationwide revolt is unlikely because Gaddafi has oil cash to smooth over social problems, and is still respected in much of the country.
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