Embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is ramping up efforts to quell protests demanding his ouster by arming civilian supporters and allowing them to roam freely through the capital, residents reported Saturday.

Witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, reported seeing trucks and cars filled with armed civilians driving through Tripoli neighbourhoods. Many of the armed civilians, who appeared to be young men in their teens and twenties, wore green to show their allegiance to Gadhafi's regime.

A Tripoli businessman said Gadhafi supporters could be seen entering the headquarters of the regime's Revolutionary Committee on Saturday and leaving with guns and other munitions. The businessman reported that Gadhafi loyalists are offering cars and money to supporters who recruit three people to the effort to quash the protests.

"Someone from the old revolutionary committees will go with them so they'll be four," the man told The Associated Press. "They'll arm them to drive around the city and terrorize people."

Many of the city's residents remained in their homes Saturday for fear of running into one of the newly established checkpoints manned by armed civilians.

The reports follow another day of intense violence in the capital, with anti-Gadhafi protesters coming under heavy fire from militias loyal to the regime.

Gadhafi travelled to an historic fort in the capital Friday, where he urged his supporters to rise up, promising that he would give them the means to defend his rule.

"At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire," Gadhafi said.

The violent crackdown on protesters, as well as Gadhafi's ongoing vow to remain in Libya and rid the country of its anti-regime faction, has led to stern warnings from the international community.

So far, anti-regime rebels have managed to gain control of about half of Libya's 1,600 kilometre-long, heavily populated Mediterranean coastline. On Friday night, rebels struggled to hold on to the air base in Misrata, the country's third-largest city, about 200 kilometres east of Tripoli. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers with tanks managed to gain control of part of the base after a battle with protesters and soldiers who have joined the efforts to oust Gadhafi. However, protesters managed to capture Brig.-Gen. Abu Bakr Ali and another soldier during the fighting.

In Tripoli, which is home to about a third of Libya's population of six million people, Gadhafi continues to struggle to maintain control. As his armed bands roamed the city, supporters chopped down palm trees and used other debris to set up a blockade to the eastern district of Tajoura.

Despite the blockade, dozens of residents attended a funeral Saturday for Anwar Algadi, who, according to his brother, was killed Friday in fighting with pro-regime forces.

And in the mostly pro-Gadhafi region northwest of the capital, several cities have fallen into rebel hands. On Friday, protesters managed to repel efforts by pro-Gadhafi militias and soldiers to take back Zawiya and Misrata. Those clashes left at least 30 people dead.

Despite the violence around the capital, Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, told foreign journalists invited to Tripoli that the situation there was "calm." He also denied that there had been any casualties in the city.

"Everything is peaceful," he said. "Peace is coming back to our country."

Referring to the battles in Misrata and Zawiya, al-Islam said the regime was battling "terrorist" elements in those cities but was trying to negotiate a settlement.

With files from The Associated Press