Updated from 12:49 p.m. EST with information regarding the treatment of journalists in Libya.
NEW YORK (
) -- Anti-government protesters calling for Col. Moammar Gadhafi's ouster battled troops of government loyalists for control of a number of cities both east and west of Tripoli on Thursday.
Egyptians who work in Libya carry their belongings after fleeing across the border into Tunisia on Thursday.
Opponents of the Libyan leader clashed with Gadhafi supporters in the town of Zawiya on Thursday,
reports. Gadhafi's troops engaged in violent gun battles with rebels in Zawiyah, an oil terminal about 30 miles from the capital. Witnesses said both sides were firing at each other in the streets, and that 10 people were killed in the clashes,
reports, citing a Libyan newspaper.
"It is chaotic there. There are people with guns and swords,"
quoted witness Mohamed Jaber as saying, after he passed through the city on his way to Tunisia on Thursday.
The Gadhafi opposition is already in control of a few major cities in the east of the country, including Benghazi and Tobruk,
correspondent in the region reported that at least half of the cities in the east, along Libya's 1,000-mile Mediterranean coast, appeared to be under control by the opposition.
The Mediterranean port city of Benghazi plans to run itself under "people's committees,"
reports, after protesters fought back and threw off government control on Wednesday.
Hossam Ibrahim Sherif, director of the Benghazi city health center, said about 320 people had been killed in the city over the past week during the violent clashes.
Anti-government troops who had gained control of Misrata, a city 125 miles east of Tripoli, were attacked by loyal government forces, and several people were reportedly killed in the fighting.
Reports out of Libya also said that the towns Misrata and Zuara in the west had also fallen to rebels by Thursday. The town was being controlled by "popular committees" armed with automatic weapons, according to
Gadhafi spoke to a Libyan television station on Thursday. During a 30-minute phone call, the Libyan leader blamed the recent civilian upheaval on Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. He claimed Bin Laden had drugged the people and fueled the protests by giving them "hallucinogenic pills in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe."
"Those people who took your sons away from you and gave them drugs and said let them die are launching a campaign over cell phones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers and mothers, and they are destroying their country," he said.
The violence between protesters and government supporters began escalating after Gadhafi delivered a televised speech on Tuesday in which he called on his supporters to track down and kill protesters who continue to demand his ouster.
By Tuesday night,
and converged in Tripoli's central Green Square, wearing green armbands as Gadhafi had directed. Government supporters, many wielding weapons, drove protesters from the streets with violence, and residents described a state of terror.
Thousands of people, fearing for their lives, are fleeing Libya into neighboring countries as the rebellion against Gadhafi's authoritarian rule causes chaos around the nation.
In an interview with
on Thursday, France's top human rights official Francois Zimeray said the death toll in Libya could be as high as 2,000, as the clashes become increasingly violent.
"The question is not if Gadhafi will fall, but when and at what human cost," Zimeray said. "For now the figures we have ... more than 1,000 have died, possibly 2,000, according to sources."
Reporting from Libya has been difficult as the government has tried to restrict journalists from covering the demonstrations.
The Libyan government plans to regard foreign journalists within its borders as "terrorist collaborators," the U.S. State Department said in a statement Thursday.
Senior Libyan government told U.S. diplomats that some reporters from
could enter the country to report on the upheaval, but their safety wouldn't be guaranteed.
"The Libyan government said that it was not responsible for the safety of these journalists, who risked immediate arrest on the full range of possible immigration charges," the U.S. State Department said. "Foreign journalists already in Libya who are not part of the approved teams were urged to immediately join the approved teams in-country."
--Written by Theresa McCabe in Boston.
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