TRIPOLI — Libya's authorities called on protesters to surrender their weapons and offered rewards for those who inform on protest leaders, in a statement broadcast live on Libyan TV, as the opposition said it planned to liberate the capital Tripoli and "capture" Gadhafi.
Libyan security has cracked down on anti-government protesters and fighting has spread to the capital Tripoli after erupting in Libya's oil-producing east last week with no signs of Leader Moammar Gadhafi stepping down after 41 years in power.
"He who submits his weapon and shows remorse will be exempted from being pursued legally. The committee calls on citizens to cooperate and inform on those who led on the youth or supplied them with money, equipment or intoxicating substances and hallucinatory pills," the statement by the Libyan People's Committee for General Security said.
The committee also said those cooperating would be given money.
"A lucrative monetary reward will be given to anyone who contributes or informs on them," the statement, read out by a Libyan army officer, said on television monitored in Cairo.
Gadhafi has lost control of a chunk of the country, at least from Egypt's border to the major city of Benghazi. Anti-government protesters have also claimed areas of the west, including the city of Misrata. Al-Jazeera television broadcast pictures of protesters riding on tanks in the city.
In the east, the opposition vowed to liberate Tripoli, where the Libyan leader is holed up with a force of militiamen roaming the streets and tanks guarding the outskirts.
Protesters and the mutinous army units that have joined them were consolidating their hold on nearly the entire eastern half of the 1,000-mile Mediterranean coastline, stretching from the Egyptian border to Ajdabiya, about 480 miles east of Tripoli, encroaching on key oil fields around the Gulf of Sidra.
Across their territory, they have been setting up their own administrations. In many places, committees organized by residents, tribes and mutinous army officers were governing, often collecting weapons looted from pro-Gadhafi troops to prevent chaos.
"There is now an operating room for the militaries of all the liberated cities and they are trying to convince the others to join them," said Lt. Col. Omar Hamza, an army officer who had allied with the rebels in Tobruk. "They are trying to help the people in Tripoli to capture Gadhafi."
Top stories: Turmoil in the Middle East
In a further sign of Gadhafi's faltering hold, two air force pilots — one from the leader's own tribe — parachuted out of their warplane and let it crash into the eastern Libyan desert rather than follow orders to bomb an opposition-held city.
But an army of African mercenaries was streaming toward Tripoli to reinforce Gadhafi's stronghold, The New York Times reported.
International momentum was building for action to punish Gadhafi's regime for the bloody crackdown it has unleashed against the uprising that began Feb. 15.
President Barack Obama said the suffering and bloodshed in Libya "is outrageous and it is unacceptable," and he directed his administration to prepare a "full range of options to respond.Story: Obama dispatches Clinton for international talks on Libya
French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the possibility of the European Union cutting off economic ties.
Another proposal gaining traction was for the United Nations to declare a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent it using warplanes to hit protesters. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that if reports of such strikes are confirmed, "there's an immediate need for that level of protection."
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Americans to leave Libya immediately and that U.S. officials were looking at all possible options to end the violence there.
NBC News' Richard Engel reported from Libya that the State Department said hundreds of Americans were aboard ferries waiting to leave Tripoli, Gadhafi's stronghold.Slideshow: Conflict in Libya (on this page)
In Tripoli, protest organizers called for new rallies Thursday and Friday, raising the potential for a more bloody confrontation.
Militiamen and Gadhafi supporters — a mix of Libyans and foreign African fighters bused in — roamed the capital's main streets, called up Tuesday night by the Libyan leader in a fist-pounding speech in which he vowed to fight to the death. The gunmen fired weapons in the air, chanting "Long live Gadhafi," and waved green flags. With a steady rain, streets were largely empty, residents said.
Protesters told Engel that they saw Gadhafi's speech as "a call to civil war," he said in a post to Twitter.
Engel also reported (on this page) seeing many in Libya fleeing east toward the Egyptian border with all their belongings. Traveling through Libya, he reported rebels in control of several towns.
Eastern oil fields are being protected and patrolled by army units that defected from Gadhafi, Engel reported.
In many neighborhoods, residents set up watch groups to keep militiamen out, barricading streets with concrete blocks, metal and rocks, and searching those trying to enter, a Tripoli activist said.
Gadhafi's residence at Tripoli's Aziziya Gates was guarded by loyalists along with a line of armed militiamen in vehicles, some masked, he said. The radio station building downtown was also heavily fortified. In one western neighborhood, security forces stormed several homes and arrested three or four people, a witness said, while tanks were deployed on the eastern outskirts, witnesses in at least one neighborhood said.
"Mercenaries are everywhere with weapons. You can't open a window or door. Snipers hunt people," said another resident, who said she had spent the night in her home awake hearing gunfire outside. "We are under siege, at the mercy of a man who is not a Muslim."Story: What you need to know about the unrest in the Mideast
But below the surface, protesters were organizing, said the activist. At night, they fan out and spray-paint anti-Gadhafi graffiti or set fires near police stations, chanting, "The people want the ouster of the regime," before running at the approach of militiamen, he said. The Tripoli residents, like other witnesses around the country, spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.
In opposition-controlled Benghazi, the eastern city where the uprising began, residents held a mass rally outside the city's main courthouse, vowing to support protesters in the capital, said Farag al-Warfali, a banker. They also called a one-day fast in solidarity with them. Afterward, young men went into the courthouse to register to obtain weapons, which had been looted from police stations and military bases and then turned over to the city's new rulers, he said.
The idea is to "take their weapons and march toward Tripoli," al-Warfali said, although Benghazi lies 580 miles east of the capital, and territory still loyal to Gadhafi lies between them.
Hossam Ibrahim Sherif, director of the Benghazi city health center, told a Reuters reporter that about 320 people had been killed in Benghazi.
There were similar calls in Misrata — several hours' drive or 120 miles east of Tripoli, the closest major city to the capital to fall to anti-government forces. A mosque called residents to come to "jihad," or holy war, in support of the protesters, said one resident, Iman.
"We are going to join forces with our brothers in Tripoli," she said.
The extent of Gadhafi's control over the country he has ruled for 41 years had been reduced to the western coastal region around Tripoli, the deserts to the south and parts of the center.
After Gadhafi's speech Tuesday night, militiamen flooded into Sabratha, a town west of Tripoli famed for nearby ancient Roman ruins, and battled protesters who had taken over, said one resident. Around 5,000 militiamen from neighboring towns, backed by army and police units, clashed with protesters and drove them from the streets, he said.
Celebration in Misrata
But Gadhafi's territory was being eroded.
In Misrata, residents honked horns in celebration and raised the pre-Gadhafi flags of the Libyan monarchy after several days of fighting that drove militiamen from the city, said Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor. He said six people had been killed and 200 wounded in clashes that began Feb. 18.
Residents had formed committees to clean the streets, protect the city and treat the wounded, he said. "The solidarity among the people here is amazing, even the disabled are helping out."
An audio statement posted on the Internet reportedly from armed forces officers in Misrata proclaimed "our total support" for the protesters.
New videos posted by Libya's opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the pre-Gadhafi flag on a building in Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli. The city is located near a key oil port and refineries on the Mediterranean. The footage couldn't be independently confirmed.
Protesters were also in control in Zwara, a town about 30 miles from the Tunisian border in the west, after local army units sided with the protesters and police fled, said one resident, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate. "This man (Gadhafi) has reached the point that he's saying he will bring armies from Africa (to fight protesters). That means he is isolated," he said.Video: Americans await evacuation from falling Libya (on this page)
Gadhafi long kept his army weak and divided for fear of challenge, so in the fierce crackdown his regime has waged on the uprising, he has relied on militia groups, beefed up by fighters hired abroad. Meanwhile, army units in many places have sided with the rebellious protesters.
On Wednesday, two air force pilots jumped from parachutes from their Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet and let it crash, rather than carry out orders to bomb opposition-held Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, the website Qureyna reported, citing an unidentified officer in the air force control room.
One of the pilots — identified by the report as Ali Omar Gadhafi — was from Gadhafi's tribe, the Gadhadhfa, said Farag al-Maghrabi, who saw the pilots and the wreckage of the jet, which crashed in the desert outside the key oil port of Breqa, about 440 miles east of Tripoli.
At the Egyptian border, guards had fled, and local tribal elders have formed local committees to take their place. "Welcome to the new Libya," proclaimed graffiti spray-painted at the crossing. Fawzy Ignashy, a former soldier now in civilian clothes at the border, said that early in the protests, some commanders ordered troops to fire on protesters, but tribal leaders stepped in and ordered them to stop.
"They did because they were from here. So the officers fled," he said.
A defense committee of residents was even guarding one of Gadhafi's once highly secretive anti-aircraft missile bases outside Tobruk. "This is the first time I've seen missiles like these up close," said Abdelsalam al-Gedani, one of the guards, dressed in an overcoat and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle.
Only on NBCNews.com
- From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
- US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
- China: One-child policy is here to stay
- New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
- 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
- China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
- French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali
International alarm has risen over the crisis, and is sending oil prices soaring and European and other countries scrambling to get their citizens out of Libya. Oil prices hit $100 per barrel for the first time since 2008. Libya is the world's 15th largest exporter of crude, accounting for 2 percent of global daily output. Traders are worried the revolt could threaten Libya's oil production and spread to other countries in the region.
Passengers arriving in Malta, a short flight away from Libya, described chaos and violence at Tripoli's airport, with desperate people pushing and shoving to get onto the few flights taking off Wednesday.
"One of my fellow passengers was actually beaten up quite heavily and kicked on," said Steffan Arnersten, a 42-year-old Swede who works as a managing director at a technical consulting company.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.