COLONEL Muammar al-Gaddafi ordered the bombing of his own people by Libyan fighter planes yesterday in a move described as the "last desperate act" of his four-decade reign.
As his grip on power appeared to be slipping, several senior government figures resigned over Col Gaddafi's use of force against protesters, with one accusing him of "crimes against humanity".
Two Libyan Air Force fighter pilots landed their jets in Malta yesterday, where they told authorities they had been ordered to bomb protesters opposed to the regime.
The pilots, both colonels, took off from a base near the capital city Tripoli after refusing orders to attack anti-government campaigners.
There were reports last night, however, that some military aircraft were obeying orders to carry out attacks on crowds gathered in the capital.
Protester Adel Mohamed Saleh said: "What we are witnessing today is unimaginable. Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead."
Fathi al-Warfali, a Libyan activist who heads the Libyan Committee for Truth and Justice, who was taking part in a protest outside United Nations offices in Geneva, said he had heard the same reports. He added: "Military planes are attacking civilians, protesters in Tripoli now. The civilians are frightened."
There were also eyewitness reports last night of the Libyan navy firing on parts of Tripoli.
Clashes between Libyan security forces and anti-government demonstrators continued yesterday, as several key officials resigned in protest.
The discontent within the Gaddafi government was laid bare by the resignation of justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who said he had stepped down due to the "excessive use of force against unarmed protesters".
Members of Libya's mission to the UN also condemned Col Gaddafi, calling him a war criminal responsible for mass shootings of demonstrators.
"We are sure that what is going on now in Libya is crimes against humanity and crimes of war," said Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy permanent representative at the UN.
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"It is impossible to stay silent and we have to transfer the voice of the Libyan people to the world," Mr Dabbashi added, backed by 12 of his colleagues.
Libya's envoy to the Arab League, Abdel Moneim al-Honi, announced he was "joining the revolution", while the ambassador to India, Ali al-Essawi, resigned after claiming the government was using foreign mercenaries to crack down on protesters.
Mohamed Bayou, who until a month ago was chief spokesman for the Libyan government, said the leadership was wrong to threaten violence against its opponents.
With tribal leaders also condemning Col Gaddafi's rule, the uprising has seen several cities in the east of Libya fall under opposition rule.
Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Middle East analyst at Control Risks, said: "These really seem to be last, desperate acts. If you're bombing your own capital, it's really hard to see how you can survive. But I think Gaddafi is going to put up a fight."
UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon spoke to Col Gaddafi yesterday and warned him the violence "must stop immediately," a UN spokesman said. The escalation of the protests - the bloodiest yet in a series of revolts in the Arab world - prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to condemn as "completely appalling" the violent repression, which has left more than 200 people dead.
The Libyan pilots who touched down in Malta last night were being questioned by police.
They said they flew to Malta after being ordered to bomb protesters in Libya's second largest city of Benghazi.
There was intense speculation last night that Col Gaddafi was en-route to Venezuela.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had seen information that suggested he was "on his way" to the South American nation, but Andres Izarra, Venezuela's information minister, said the reports were "false".
The chaotic scenes last night led the US to order all non-essential diplomats and family members of embassy staff to leave.
Earlier, the Foreign Office ordered the withdrawal of dependents of embassy staff in Tripoli, while the British Council closed its office in the capital and withdrew "non-essential" staff.
In Benghazi, there were celebrations as rebels claimed victory after days of fighting.
Salahuddin Abdullah, a self-described protest organiser, said: "The city is no longer under military control.
"It is completely under demonstrators' control."
There were reports that soldiers who refused to fire on civilians in the city were executed by their commanding officers.
Elsanous Ali Eldorsi, a retired judge, said people buried the bodies of 11 soldiers who refused to target ordinary people.
"The bodies were cut, heads in one side and legs in the other," he explained. "It is a crime what is happening here."
One of Libya's most senior religious leaders said he expected the country's tribes to stand united against the government.
Professor Aref Ali Nayed, a member of the influential Warfalla tribe, said: "All the great tribes of Libya are united. The only thing that divided them was Gaddafi and his regime. A united Libya is a reality that is alive in our blood."
The consolidation of the opposition movement intensified after Islamic leaders issued a fatwa telling all Muslims it was their duty to rebel against the Gaddafi regime.
The Network of Free Ulema of Libya warned that the government and its supporters "have demonstrated total arrogant impunity and continued, and even intensified, their bloody crimes against humanity."They have thereby demonstrated total infidelity to the guidance of God and His beloved Prophet (peace be upon him)."
The statement from the group of more than 50 scholars added: "This renders them undeserving of any obedience or support, and makes rebelling against them by all means possible a divinely ordained duty."
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels last night strongly condemned the violence in Libya and announced an overhaul of its strategy for the region as a whole, that could see billions in financial assistance shifted from relatively stable post-Soviet states to north Africa.
Mr Hague told reporters: "This is a major, historic test for the EU. If we can succeed in bringing democracy to the Middle East, it will be a great achievement."