At least 46 people are reported to have been killed in clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces across Libya since Wednesday 16 February says US-based Human Rights Watch.

The largest protests have been held in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, where reports say that hundreds have taken to the streets demanding change. Security forces are reported to have opened fire in Benghazi on Friday 18 February when protesters approached a residential compound used by Colonel Qaddafi when he visits the city.Benghazi’s airport was closed amid reports that protesters had taken it over.

There are also reports of protests in five other Libyan cities, but not in the capital Tripoli.

The government has also cracked down on the media with websites blocked, including Facebook and al-Jazeera Arabic.

The semi-independent Quryna newspaper reported that the government would replace many state executives and decentralise and restructure the government. It is unclear whether the move is in response to the unrest.

Qaddafi is the Arab world’s longest-serving leader, having ruled oil-rich Libya since a coup in 1969.

The Libyan protests follow regime change in two of its neighbours.

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president on 11 February, handing power to the country’s military high command. Tunisia’s former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January.

However, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Tripoli has enormous oil revenue surpluses that enable it to more easily smooth over social problems. Qaddafi’s regime is still respected in much of the country, though less so in the Cyrenaica region around Benghazi.