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Africa

Libyan cities claimed by protesters as regime figures defect

media Demonstrators in Benghazi. Reuters

Protesters overran several Libyan cities on Monday, including the capital Tripoli and Benghazi in the east, amid reports that military units and personnel deserted their posts. Ongoing demonstrations calling for the end of Moamer Kadhafi's hardline regime were continuing as there was confusion over whether Kadhafi fled the country.

Gunfire rang out in Tripoli as protesters attacked government buildings, police stations and offices of the state broadcaster, all symbols of the Kadhafi regime.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon told Kadhafi in a phone call that violence in Libya "must stop immediately" and called for broad-based dialogue, a UN spokesperson said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had "seen information that suggests" Kadhafi was heading to Venezuela, but Venezuelan authorities issued a quick denial.

"I have no idea where they got this information," said the official, who asked not to be named. "It's not true."

There have also been several reports of defects. Libya's justice minister Mustapha Abdel Jalil resigned in protest over "the excessive use of force" against demonstrators in, a Libyan newspaper reported.

Two Libyan warplanes with four personnel on board landed in Malta, saying they escaped an air base near the embattled city of Benghazi.

The two men told Maltese military officers they were senior colonels in the Libyan air force who defected after being ordered to attack protesters.

"The two pilots are being held by police for further investigations," the Maltese government said in a statement.

Two civilian helicopters also arrived with seven people who said they were French and worked on oil rigs near the city. Italy later put its military air bases on high alert for the arrival of more aircraft on its territory.

New York-based Human Rights Watch still put the confirmed death toll in the uprising at 233, though spokesperson Heba Moreyef said it was a "conservative" estimate, limited by difficulties they had getting ahold of people to confirm the figure.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned an "unacceptable use of force" being used against protesters, while Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the violence "absolutely must stop".

She added France's government, unlike those of some other EU nations, was not organising the repatriation of its citizens, saying she had no reason to believe French nationals were at risk.

French oil giant Total and construction company Vinci said they were repatriating most of their expatriate employees.

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