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© Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters
A Libyan airforce pilot walks next to his Mirage F1 fighter jet after landing Monday at Malta International Airport outside Valletta. Two Libyan fighter jets and two civilian helicopters landed unexpectedly in Malta. The fighter pilots said they wre seeking asylum

Tripoli - Libyan military aircraft fired live ammunition at crowds of anti-government protesters in Tripoli, Al-Jazeera television reported Monday.

"What we are witnessing today is unimaginable," said Adel Mohamed Saleh, an activist in the capital whose accounts could not be independently confirmed. "Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead.

"Our people are dying. It is the policy of scorched earth," he said.

Fathi al-Warfali, the Libyan activist who heads the Swiss-based Libyan Committee for Truth and Justice, who was taking part in a protest outside U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, said he had heard the same reports.

The accounts came as deep cracks opened in Moammar Gadhafi's regime after more than 40 years in power, with diplomats abroad and the justice minister at home resigning, air force pilots defecting and a fire raging at the main government hall after the clashes in the capital Tripoli. Protesters called for another night of defiance in Tripoli's main square despite the government's heavy crackdown.

Arabiya television said the Tripoli clashes Monday left 160 dead.

Human Rights Watch said Monday that at least 233 people had been killed since the protests began last week, but opposition groups put the figure much higher. Most fatalities were in Benghazi, a region where Gadhafi's grip has always been weaker than elsewhere in the oil-producing desert nation.

Gadhafi's son vowed Sunday that his father and security forces would fight "until the last bullet."

An analyst for London-based consultancy Control Risks said the use of military aircraft on his own people indicated the end was approaching for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

"These really seem to be last, desperate acts. If you're bombing your own capital, it's really hard to see how you can survive, " said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Control Risks' Middle East analyst.

"But I think Gaddafi is going to put up a fight ... in Libya more than any other country in the region, there is the prospect of serious violence and outright conflict," he said.

Gadhafi's regime appeared to be preparing a new major assault in the capital Monday night. State TV at nightfall announced that the military had "stormed the hideouts of saboteurs" and called on the public to back the security forces as protesters called for a new demonstration in central Green Square and in front of Gadhafi's Tripoli residence.

Snipers had taken position on the roofs of buildings around Tripoli, apparently to stop people from outside the capital from joining the march, according to Mohammed Abdul-Malek, a London-based opposition activist in touch with residents.

Communications into the capital appeared to have been cut, and mobile phones of residents could not be reached from outside the country. State TV showed images of hundreds of Gadhafi supporters rallying in central Green Square Monday evening, waving pictures of the Libyan leader and palm fronds.

Fighter pilots claim asylum

Reuters reported that two Libyan fighter jets flown by Libyan air force colonels were granted permission to land in Malta after asking for political asylum.

They had left from a base near Tripoli and had flown low over Libyan airspace to avoid detection. They arrived shortly after two civilian helicopters carrying seven people claiming to be French landed after a flight from Libya.

Sources said the fighter pilots defected because they would not fire on the Tripoli protesters.

U.K.-based opposition activist Ahmed Sawalem, who is keeping in touch with protesters in Libya, told msnbc.com that there were reports of planes bombing a weapons store south of Benghazi in Ajdabiya "so the protesters cannot get hold of them, to use them to fight." He said a number of people in the area were thought to have been killed in the attack.

A suggestion that Gadhafi may have fled was fueled when British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had "some information" the dictator was heading for Venezuela.

However a senior government source in Caracas denied that and a U.K. official said Hague had been referring only to unconfirmed media reports.

Leaders break with Gadhafi

Libya's ambassadors at the United Nations called for Gadhafi to step down as the country's ruler. Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi said Monday that if Gadhafi does not relinquish power, "the Libyan people will get rid of him."

The staff of Libya's mission to the United Nations declared allegiance to the people of Libya, instead of to Gadhafi, a spokesman said Monday.

"The members of the Libyan mission are representing only the Libyan people and not anyone else," the spokesman, Dia al-Hotmani, said by telephone.

Justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil reportedly resigned from his post to protest the "excessive use of force against unarmed protesters."

A Libyan diplomat in China, Hussein el-Sadek el-Mesrati, told Al-Jazeera, "I resigned from representing the government of Mussolini and Hitler."

Libya's former ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who a day earlier resigned from his post to side with protesters, issued a statement demanding Gadhafi "be put on trial along with his aides, security and military commanders over the mass killings in Libya."

"Gadhafi's regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people," al-Houni said.

Celebration in Benghazi

Protesters celebrated in the streets of the country's second largest city, Benghazi, claiming they were in control after days of bloody fighting and after anti-government unrest. Celebrating protesters raised the flag of the country's old monarchy, toppled in 1969 by a Gadhafi-led military coup, over Benghazi's main courthouse and on tanks around the city.

"Gadhafi needs one more push and he is gone," said Amal Roqaqie, a lawyer at the Benghazi court, saying protesters are "imposing a new reality ... Tripoli will be our capital. We are imposing a new order and new state, a civil constitutional and with transitional government."

Cars honked their horns in celebration and protesters in the streets chanted "Long live Libya."

There were fears of chaos as young men - including regime supporters - seized weapons from the Katiba and other captured security buildings. "The youths now have arms and that's worrying," said Iman, a doctor at the main hospital. "We are appealing to the wise men of every neighborhood to rein in the youths."

Youth volunteers were directing traffic and guarding homes and public facilities, said Najla, a lawyer and university lecturer in Benghazi. She and other residents said police had disappeared from the streets.

After seizing the Katiba, protesters found the bodies of 13 uniformed security officers inside who had been handcuffed and shot in the head, then set on fire, said Hassan, also a doctor. He said protesters believed the 13 had been executed by fellow security forces for refusing to attack protesters.

Rage in Tripoli

The capital was largely shut down, with schools, government offices and most stores closed, as armed members of pro-government organizations called "Revolutionary Committees" circulated in the streets hunting for protesters in Tripoli's old city, said one protester, named Fathi.

During the day Monday, a fire was raging at the People's Hall, the main hall for government gatherings where the country's equivalent of a parliament holds its sessions several times a year, the pro-government news web site Qureyna said.

Protesters planned new marches in the central Green Square and at the leader's residence for Monday evening.

Sunday evening, protesters from various parts of the city streamed into Green Square, all but taking over the plaza and surrounding streets in the area between Tripoli's Ottoman-era old city and its Italian-style downtown. That was when the backlash began, with snipers firing down from rooftops and militiamen attacking the crowds, shooting and chasing people down side streets, according to several witnesses and protests.

Gadhafi supporters in pickup trucks and cars raced through the square, shooting automatic weapons. "They were driving like mad men searching for someone to kill. ... It was total chaos, shooting and shouting," said one 28-year-old protester.

The witnesses reported seeing casualties, but the number could not be confirmed. One witness, named Fathi, said he saw at least two he believed were dead and many more wounded. After midnight, protesters took over the main Tripoli offices of two state-run satellite stations, Al-Jamahiriya-1 and Al-Shebabiya, one witness said.

International alarm

Gadhafi's regime has unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke to Gadhafi Monday by telephone, expressing deep concern over the escalating violence and saying it must stop immediately, a statement obtained by NBC News said.

The U.S. State Department ordered all embassy family members and non-emergency personnel in Libya to leave the nation, NBC News reported. It also urged Americans to delay travel to Libya or if already there to use extreme caution.

Violence and looting could continue for several days, it warned.

The White House said on Monday that it was analyzing Seif's speech to see what offers of meaningful reform it contained, NBC News reported.

Seif promised "historic" reforms in Libya if protests stop, and on Monday state TV said he had formed a commission to investigate deaths during the unrest. Protesters ignored the vague gestures.

Officials would seek more information from Libyan officials and reiterate the White House's call for the Libyan government to avoid using violence against those protesting peacefully and respect their rights, NBC added.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting neighboring Egypt, called the Libyan government's crackdown "appalling."

"We can see what is happening in Libya which is completely appalling and unacceptable as the regime is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see that country - which is one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic - make progress. The response they have shown has been quite appalling," he told reporters in Cairo.

The European Union on Monday sharply criticized Libyan authorities. The EU foreign ministers condemned "the ongoing repression against demonstrators in Libya and deplores the violence and death of civilians," said a statement released after the regular monthly meeting of the bloc's 27 foreign ministers.

EU President Herman Van Rompuy said in a separate statement he was "horrified by the growing number of human casualties among demonstrators."

Fragmentation is a real danger in Libya, a country of deep tribal divisions and a historic rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi. The system of rule created by Gadhafi - the "Jamahiriya," or "rule by masses" - is highly decentralized, run by "popular committees" in a complicated hierarchy that effectively means there is no real center of decision-making except Gadhafi, his sons and their top aides.

Seif has often been put forward as the regime's face of reform and is often cited as a likely successor to his father. Seif's younger brother Mutassim is the national security adviser, with a strong role in the military and security forces, and another brother Khamis heads the army's 32nd Brigade, which according to U.S. diplomats is the best trained and best equipped force in the military.

Oil price jumps

The spiraling turmoil in Libya, an OPEC country that is a significant oil supplier to Europe, was raising international alarm and pushing oil prices sharply higher.

The oil price jumped $4.13 to $90.13 a barrel in the U.S. market for crude on fear the unrest could disrupt supplies.

Two leading oil companies, Statoil and BP, said they were pulling some employees out of Libya or preparing to do so.

Portugal sent a plane to pick up its citizens and other EU nationals and Turkey sent two ferries to pick up construction workers stranded in the unrest-hit country.

EU foreign ministers were discussing on Monday the possible evacuation of European citizens. Mobs attacked South Korean, Turkish and Serbian construction workers at various sites around the country, officials from each country said.

Benghazi's airport was closed, according to an airport official in Cairo. A Turkish Airlines flight trying to land in Benghazi to evacuate Turkish citizens Monday was turned away, told by ground control to circle over the airport then to return to Istanbul.