Confusion reigns over Col. Qadhafi's whereabouts; death toll rises to 233

Fighting raged in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on Monday as confusion reigned over the whereabouts of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague hinting that he may have fled Libya for Venezuela.

“About whether Col. Qadhafi is in Venezuela, I have no information that says he is, although I have seen some information that suggests he is on his way there,” Mr. Hague was quoted as saying. However, the government of President Hugo Chavez denied reports that the Libyan strongman was travelling to Venezuela.

After the fall of the eastern city of Benghazi on Sunday, the battle lines for the control of Libya between the protesters and the government have shifted to Tripoli, where heavy fighting has been going on since the early hours on Monday.

Fighting, centred around Tripoli's Green Square surged dramatically following a provocative early morning address on state television by Seif-al-Islam el-Qadhafi, the son of Muammar Qadhafi, Libya's ruler for 42 years.

During his address, the President's son warned of calamitous consequences of a possible civil war, in case the Opposition did not backtrack.

The warnings, which many said amounted to “scaremongering” undertaken by a panicked regime, was combustible material, which inflamed protests further.

Machine guns used

The Green Square soon became an arena of violent clashes, worsened by the use of machine guns and heavy weapons that had been brought in by the security forces. There were also reports that some military aircraft fired at the protesters. After day-break on Monday, several buildings in Tripoli were on fire.

The Human Rights Watch said the death toll resulting from clashes in the last four days had climbed to 233. Agency reports quoting Arabia TV put Monday's death toll at 160.

The anti-Qadhafi revolt appeared to have split open the regime based on tribal loyalties. Al Jazeera television quoted a spokesman of the powerful Al-Warfalla tribe that Col. Qadhafi had been asked to “leave the country.”

Analysts say that it was likely the tribal realignments triggered by the rebellion had begun to fracture the military, which was steered by Col. Qadhafi and a committee on which 15 major tribes were represented.

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