News from inside Libya remains chaotic. Gaddafi has phoned in a speech to Libyan television that repeated much of his earlier rant but added:

“It is obvious now that this issue is run by al-Qaeda,” he said, speaking by phone from an unspecified location on Thursday.

He said that the protesters were young people who were being manipulated by al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, and that many were doing so under the influence of drugs.

“No one above the age of 20 would actually take part in these events,” he said. “They are taking advantage of the young age of these people [to commit violent acts] because they are not legally liable!”

… Gaddafi argued that he was a purely “symbolic” leader with no real political power, comparing his role to that played by Queen Elizabeth II in England.

The BBC noted that Gaddafi made the surprising admission about the town of Al Zawiya:

“Zawiya is slipping away from us”.

And in fact there are reports of intensive fighting at Al Zawiya, which is just 50km west of Tripoli:

3:24pm There are multiple reports of gun battles taking place between security forces and protesters in the town of Az Zawiyah, 50 km west of Tripoli, on Thursday. Reuters reports that gun fire has broken out there, while sources tell Al Jazeera that the army attacked the town this morning, firing shots at protesters for roughly four hours.

The death tolls vary greatly – from 16 to 100, and Reuters is unable to confirm any numbers. The agency reports that the army attacked the Souq Mosque where protesters had been camped out for several days:

The soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons and hit the mosque’s minaret with fire from an anti-aircraft gun, he said. Some of the young men among the protesters, who were inside the mosque and in a nearby lot, had hunting rifles for protection.

The witness said that earlier in the day, a Gaddafi “envoy” had come to Az Zawiyah and told the protesters in the mosque to leave or “you will see a massacre”. He also said, “Those who attacked us are not the mercenaries, they are the sons of our country”.

4:00pm An eyewitness named Ali from Az Zawiyah tells Al Jazzera that soldiers fired at protesters with heavy fire arms for five hours this morning. Some of the protesters, he said were armed with hunting rifles, others were unarmed.

“The shooting was direct to the people. They shot the people in the head or in the chest. They were trying to kill the people, not just terrify them,” said Ali.

He added that at least 100 people had been killed and that around 400 injured were taken to the hospital in Az Zawiyah.

A BBC broadcast report based on a number of eyewitnesses in Al Zawiyah reported that there’s been a serious bloodbath with hundreds wounded in an attack that included the use of RPGs against the people. The BBC also spoke to a soldier captured by the protesters who said their orders were to shoot randomly at the crowd and that additional attacks were ordered for tonight. [cont'd. after jump]

Control in the eastern portion of Libya appears consolidated under the revolutionaries with people organizing basic services and cheering the appearance of any foreign journalists. There remains great concern over whether Gaddafi has the forces needed to attack these new liberated areas – and so far the revolutionary forces do not have the strength needed to take Tripoli where Gaddafi mercenaries and loyalists appear to control the streets, imposing a virtual full time curfew with snipers and roaming attack squads.

Steve Negus of The Arabist is updating a very good google map with notes on the state of play in the major cities – you can view it here.