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CAIRO — The faltering government of the Libyan strongman Colonel Moammar Gadhafi struck back at mounting protests against his 40-year rule, as security forces and militiamen backed by helicopters and warplanes besieged parts of the capital Monday, according to witnesses and news reports from Tripoli.

By Monday night, witnesses said, the streets of the capital, Tripoli, were thick with special forces loyal to Gadhafi as well as mercenaries. They shot freely as planes dropped what witnesses described as “small bombs” and helicopters fired on protesters.

Hundreds of Gadhafi supporters took over Green Square after truckloads of militiamen arrived and opened fire on protesters, scattering them from the square. Residents said they now feared even to emerge from their houses.

“It was an obscene amount of gunfire,” said the witness. “They were strafing these people. People were running in every direction.”

The police stood by and watched, the witness said, as the militiamen, still shooting, chased after the protesters. As the conflict spread to Tripoli, Gadhafi’s long hold on power appeared to be weakening, too, as key advisers and diplomats broke with his government and Libya’s second-largest city remained under control of the protesters.

Gadhafi’s whereabouts were not known. But the heavy presence of security forces in the capital late Monday was a clear signal of his determination to hold on. Two residents said planes had been landing for 10 days ferrying mercenaries from African countries into an airbase in Tripoli. They had done much of the shooting, which began Sunday night, they said. Some forces were using particularly lethal, hollow-point bullets, they said.

“The shooting is not designed to disperse the protesters,” said one resident, who wanted to be identified only as Waleed, fearing for his security. “It is meant to kill them.”

“This is not Ben Ali or Mubarak,” he added, referring to the deposed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt — Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. “This man has no sense of humanity.”

Two Libyan fighter pilots defected to Malta after they had been ordered to bomb protesters, said Maltese government officials quoted by Reuters.

Libyans from other cities — Benghazi and Misrata — were reported to be heading to Tripoli to join the battle against the government forces, said Mansour O. El-Kikhia, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Texas at Austin, who had talked to people inside the country.

“There are dead on the streets, you cannot even pick them up,” he said by e-mail. “The army is just shooting at everybody. That has not deterred the people from continuing.”

In a sign of growing cracks within the government, several senior officials — including the justice minister and members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations — broke with Gadhafi.

The United States condemned the Gadhafi government’s lethal use of force and ordered all non-essential personnel and family members at its embassy to leave the country.