TOBRUK, Libya (AFP) – Moamer Kadhafi's regime has lost vast swathes of Libya's east to an insurrection, it emerged Wednesday, as the West prepared for a mass exodus from a "bloodbath" in the north African country.
As condemnation of the brutal crackdown grew and foreigners fled the oil-rich country, Kadhafi appeared to be increasingly isolated after reports that hundreds of civilians were killed in the backlash by his forces.
Kadhafi opponents appeared firmly in control of Libya's coastal east, from the Egyptian border through to the cities of Tobruk and Benghazi, with government soldiers switching sides to join the uprising.
Tobruk is located about 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border and Benghazi, the epicentre of protests, some 400 kilometres further west -- both in the region of Cyrenaica.
Journalists in Cyrenaica saw regime opponents -- many of them armed -- all along the highway that hugs the Mediterranean coast.
Soldiers were declaring their support for the uprising, residents said, but the regime asserted it was still in control via a text message sent on the Libyan national mobile telephone network.
"God give victory to our leader and the people," the message said, promising a credit in cellphone time if it were forwarded to other mobile telephone users.
But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said "Cyrenaica is no longer under the control of the Libyan government and there are outbreaks of violence across the country."
For his part, the Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Khaim said Al-Qaeda had set up an Islamic emirate in Derna, between Tobruk and Benghazi, headed by a former US prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.
But residents in the city have told reporters there is no substance to these rumours, which they claim the Libyan government is sowing to "scare Europe."
In the capital Tripoli, streets were mainly empty, barring a few dozen Kadhafi backers, despite his nationally televised call on Tuesday for a show of popular support.
Only Green Square -- a Kadhafi stronghold since the revolt against his four decades of iron-fisted rule began on February 15 -- pulsed with activity as pro-regime supporters stage a demonstration in support of the embattled leader.
Kadhafi, 68, made the call in an angry rambling speech on television, declaring he would die a martyr in Libya, and threatening to purge opponents "house by house" and "inch by inch."
Proclaiming the support of the people, Kadhafi ordered the army and police to crush the revolt against his rule.
On Tuesday, Libya's regime said 300 people had been killed in the protests, but the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) said on Wednesday that at least 640 had died.
The figure includes 275 dead in Tripoli and 230 in Benghazi.
Libya's bar to the entry of foreign news media has complicated the chronicling of events there, but several correspondents entered the country on Wednesday from Egypt.
Kaim declared that they were "outlaws" and said they would be arrested if they did not turn themselves in.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, the north African nation's top trading partner, urged the world to oppose "unjustified violence and drifts towards Islamic extremism" in Libya, a day after phoning Kadhafi.
China, the European Union, France, India, South Korea and the United States, among others, scrambled to evacuate people from the turbulent nation, as the international community expressed outrage at the crackdown.
The UN Security Council "condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, deplored the repression against peaceful demonstrators and expressed deep regret at the deaths of hundreds of civilians."
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for international efforts to ensure a "prompt and peaceful transition" and the UN Human Rights Council said it would hold a special session on Friday to discuss the crisis following a request by European Union.
The announcement came a day after Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, "widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity."
Britain's The Financial Times reported that the strongman's family was feuding over the vast business empire the Kadhafi regime has built up since coming to power in 1969.
Another British daily, The Times, said it had footage of severely wounded and dead protesters in a hospital in the eastern city of Benghazi proving heavy weapons were being used to crush the revolt.
Army, police and militias have killed unarmed demonstrators indiscriminately, even to the point where air force planes strafed civilians, according to widespread reports.
In response, Peru suspended diplomatic ties with Libya, the first nation to do so.
Spain said Kadhafi had "lost all legitimacy to continue to lead his country," as EU President Herman Van Rompuy insisted the crimes could "not to remain without consequences."
Kadhafi, a former army colonel, is yet to show any signs of relenting despite numerous high-level defections by ministers, diplomats and military officers, who have announced their support for the rebellion.
The turmoil in Libya, which has Africa's largest oil reserves, is the continent's fourth-largest producer and where many Western oil companies have suspended operations, has sent crude prices soaring.
Oil prices topped $110 on Wednesday for the first time since late 2008 after news that a Libyan fighter pilot had disobeyed orders to bomb opposition stronghold of Benghazi, analysts said.
Analysts said the news immediately stoked fears over the position in Libya itself, where many Western oil companies have suspended operations, and in the wider Middle East where many countries face protests for change.
German oil firm Wintershall said it had stopped production in Libya due to the security situation, as giant French counterpart Total announced it was "starting to suspend" its operations.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for the European Union to adopt "swift and concrete sanctions" and suspend economic and financial relations with Libya, and an EU diplomat in Brussels said the EU ordered sanctions to be drawn up that could include an assets freeze, a visa ban and legal pursuit of top figures in Moamer Kadhafi's regime, a diplomatic source said.
Meanwhile, all Libyan ports and terminals were temporarily closed because of the deadly unrest, the CMA CGM shipping group said.