Libyan leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said Sunday the nation would fall into a "civil war" if the ruling National Transitional Council resigned, as it faced its first major challenge.
Angry protests in the eastern city of Benghazi -- the city which first rebelled against Kadhafi last year -- have dealt a severe blow to the NTC's functioning. It led its deputy head Abdel Hafiz Ghoga to resign on Sunday, three days after furious students had manhandled him.
"We are not going to resign because it would lead to civil war," NTC head Abdel Jalil said in an interview on the Libya al-Hurra television station late Sunday as protests raged in Benghazi.
Abdel Jalil said some "hidden hands" were "pushing the demonstrators."
"Who is pushing these sit-ins prompting protesters to invade the headquarters of the council with such savagery?," the new Libya's leader said, referring to the attack on NTC offices in Benghazi Saturday.
Crowds of protesters threw several home-made grenades at and stormed the NTC offices with iron rods and stones before setting the building's front ablaze, witnesses and council members said.
They even threw plastic bottles at Abdel Jalil, who is respected across Libya for his active role in the anti-Kadhafi rebellion. He had to be escorted out of the premises.
Benghazi protesters rampaged through the NTC's offices, denouncing what they said is a "non-transparent" body. The protesters also accused the NTC of having marginalised some wounded veterans of the uprising that toppled Moamer Kadhafi in favour of people who were previously loyal to the slain dictator.
Defending the NTC and its work, Abdel Jalil paid tribute to Ghoga, despite the fury of the protesters.
"We must praise the role played by Abdel Hafiz Ghoga. He chose his country before himself," Abdel Jalil said. His onetime deputy had supported the anti-Kadhafi revolution when others "were in Egypt or hidden elsewhere."
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Ghoga stepped down Sunday after about 4,000 students protested against him in Benghazi's University of Ghar Yunis where he was manhandled on Thursday and had to flee from the campus to escape the angry mob.
Ghoga, who served as official spokesman for the NTC, had come under increasing opposition from Benghazi residents who accuse him of opportunism because of what they said was his belated defection from the Kadhafi regime.
"My resignation shows that the NTC is a tribune for fighting for a cause and not a governing body," Ghoga told AFP.
"We are not looking for posts," he said, adding that his decision was in the "best interests of Libya."
He said "since the end of the war of liberation an air of hatred had began to dominate which does not serve national interest."
"To prove that we are with the interest (of Libya) and that we are a movement of struggle, we decided to give way to other patriots... the important thing is to preserve the NTC... we do not want our country sliding into chaos."
The NTC had staunchly backed Ghoga after the Ghar Yunis incident, saying an attack on him represented "an attack on the sovereignty of the Libyan people and its glorious revolution."
The violent protests against the NTC and Ghoga in particular even forced the council to meet at an undisclosed location on Sunday to discuss the nation's new electoral law.
NTC member Abdelrazzak al-Arabi told AFP that the meeting had postponed the adoption of the law to January 28. It was expected to scrap an article reserving 10 percent of the seats of the proposed 200-member constituent assembly for women, he added.
Several women's bodies and rights groups had criticised the article, saying it does not go far enough in giving women a say in post-Kadhafi politics.
Arabi said the NTC had set up an election commission comprising 17 members, including lawyers, judges and human rights activists, to oversee future polls.
Abdel Jalil, meanwhile, said despite the protests he was "optimistic" about the future of Libya.
"Libya will see prosperity as she has not seen before. But we need help and support" from the people, he said.