Muammar Gaddafi's Rule Teeters On Brink

THE iron-fisted rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was rocked overnight as protests spread to the capital, regime loyalists defected, and colonels fled abroad to defy orders to fire on demonstrators.

Barely a week after his Egyptian neighbour Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, the Middle East's longest-ruling leader sent out a warning that he was ready for a fight to the death, despite signs his grip on power is loosening.

However, Libyan officials were forced to deny that Gaddafi had fled to the country, after British Foreign Secretary William Hague said ""information that suggests (Gaddafi) is on his way"" to Venezuela. Caracas also issued a denial.

The president of Yemen, another ruler who has chalked up more than three decades in power, also defied calls to quit saying he would only exit if defeated at the ballot box. And a top exiled opposition figure said he planned to return to Bahrain, fuelling pressure on the ruling royal family for reform.While there was fresh violence in several Arab cities, the most dramatic events were in Tripoli where heavy gunfire broke out in downtown areas for the first time since the uprising began in eastern Libya last week.

Tripoli residents said by telephone there had been ""a massacre"" in the Tajura and Fashlum districts, with indiscriminate shooting and women among the dead. ""What happened today in Tajura was a massacre,"" one resident said. ""Armed men were firing indiscriminately. There are even women among the dead,"" he said, adding mosque loudspeakers were putting out appeals for help.

Another witness in Fashlum said that helicopters had landed what he called armed African mercenaries in the neighbourhood, who opened fire on anyone in the street, causing a large number of deaths.