BENGHAZI, Libya – A Libyan army unit loyal to Moammar Gadhafi blasted a minaret of a mosque with anti-aircraft missiles and automatic weapons Thursday after scores of anti-government protesters refused to leave the area west of Tripoli, a witness said.
Protesters who had been camped inside and outside the mosque suffered heavy casualties in the attack on Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, the witness said, but he couldn't provide an exact toll.
Pro-Gadhafi forces have fought back fiercely as the longtime leader has seen his control whittled away, with Zawiya and other major Libyan cities and towns closer to the capital falling to the rebellion against his rule. In the east, now all but broken away, 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.
The witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the 9 a.m. attack came a day after a Gadhafi aide identified as Abdullah Megrahi came to the city and warned the protesters to"leave or you will see a massacre."
"We told him we are not leaving, either death or victory," the witness said.
He expressed disbelief the army would attack its own people. Several military units have sided with the protesters since the uprising began on Feb. 15.
"What is happening is horrible, those who attacked us are not the mercenaries; they are sons of our country," the witness said while sobbing. "Now there is heavy gunfire. They bombed the minaret of the mosque."
He said the protesters were mostly youths armed only with hunting rifles. He also said protesters from Zawiya did not intend to respond to a call by the opposition movement for a nationwide march to the capital on Friday.
"We had no intention to march to Tripoli. We talked about it and we agreed to stay here," he said.
The protesters have been sleeping inside the mosque and in an empty lot outside for days and refused to leave.
"The youth have no means to defend themselves but hunting rifles and their determination while the army has anti-aircraft missiles and automatic weapons," he said.
He said that there are no police in the city, which is located near a key oil port and refineries on the Mediterranean, so people had formed committees to guard their houses and buildings. He also said Gadhafi loyalists had attacked Chinese and Egyptian employees of construction companies in the city.
The report couldn't immediately be confirmed.
International momentum has been building for action to punish Gadhafi's regime for the bloody crackdown it has unleashed against the protesters.
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, including possible sanctions that could freeze the assets and ban travel to the U.S. by Libyan officials.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the possibility of the European Union cutting off economic ties.
Another proposal gaining some 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.