Snipers on rooftops and troops armed with machine guns on the ground attacked unarmed protesters in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. However, by late Sunday, it appeared protesters, calling for “regime change,” had begun to dig in.

A square near the Benghazi courthouse was identified as the city's “Tahrir square,” Egypt's pro-democracy icon. Joining the media war with the authorities, the protesters were arranging for beaming worldwide images of their anticipated brutal confrontations with the security forces.

At least 173 protesters have been killed in cycles of violence in Benghazi, which peaked on Saturday, according to an estimate by the New York-based Human Rights Watch on Sunday. The scale of the bloodbath was hard to confirm because of the news blackout, reinforced on Saturday by the authorities' decision to de-link the country from the Internet.

Eyewitness accounts on amateur video clips or relayed in driblets over poor phone lines suggested that the scale of violence was stunning.

Quoting an eyewitness, Reuters said “dozens were killed” in the violence on Saturday. On Sunday, the Associated Press quoted a Benghazi doctor as saying that 200 bodies of protesters were brought to the hospital where he worked.

The BBC, quoting a Benghazi resident, said government forces attacked protesters with mortars and Soviet-era 14.5-mm machine guns.

There were also reports of foreign mercenaries being drafted by the regime in the attacks. Some analysts said the employment of mercenaries was being preferred, as the authorities doubted the loyalty of the regular forces.

A group of 50 senior Muslim religious leaders appealed to Muslims in the security forces to stop attacking protesters.

Despite the severity of the attacks, the city of Benghazi had been “liberated,” except a government compound, witnesses said. Cracks appeared in the security forces, as some in the police and the military joined the pro-democracy activists.

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