January 20, 2018
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Unrest spreads to Libyan capital as Arab protests simmer

Libya's unrest spread to the capital Tripoli after scores of protesters were killed in the second city Benghazi, which appeared to have slipped out of control of forces loyal to strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi has attempted to put down protests with a violent crackdown, triggering some of the worst bloodshed in the two months since unrest began sweeping across the Arab world.

In the first sign of serious unrest in the capital, thousands of protesters clashed with supporters of Gadaffi in Tripoli. Gunfire could be heard and police using tear gas to disperse the demonstrators.

In Benghazi, center of Libya's unrest, tens of thousands of people took to the streets and appeared to be in control of the city before security forces opened fire and killed scores.

Benghazi residents said soldiers from a unit had joined their protest and defeated a force Gaddafi's elite guards. Bodies were brought to a hospital riddled with bullets and wounds from rocket-propelled grenades.

A witness in Tripoli said police in the capital were using tear gas against protesters, some of whom were throwing stones at billboards of Gaddafi.

A resident of the capital told Reuters by telephone he could hear gunshots in the streets. "We're inside the house and the lights are out. There are gunshots in the street," he said. "That's what I hear, gunshots and people. I can't go outside."

An expatriate worker said protesters were being dispersed by police and he could see burning cars in the capital.

The spread of unrest to Tripoli is a major development as protests so far, the biggest of Gaddafi's rule, were mostly confined to the east of the country where his grip is weaker.

One of Gaddafi's sons, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, appeared on television delivering a rambling address in which he repeatedly said Libya was "not Egypt or Tunisia," neighboring countries whose strongmen were swept from power in recent weeks.

Wagging a finger at the camera, he blamed Libyan exiles for fomenting the violence, promised dialogue on the Libyan constitution and warned of bloodshed if the situation slipped further out of control.

In Benghazi, Habib al-Obaidi, head of the intensive care unit at the main Al-Jalae hospital, said the bodies of 50 people, mostly killed by gunshots, were brought there on Sunday afternoon. The deaths came after scores were killed on Saturday.

Two hundred wounded people had arrived, 100 of them in serious condition, he said.

"The problem is not the number of those killed but how they were killed. One of the victims was obliterated after being hit by an RPG to the abdomen," he said.

Members of an army unit known as the "Thunderbolt" squad had come to the hospital carrying wounded comrades, he said. The soldiers said they had defected to the cause of the protesters and had fought and defeated Gaddafi's elite guards.

"They are now saying that they have overpowered the Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people's revolt," another man at the hospital who heard the soldiers, lawyer Mohamed al-Mana, told Reuters by telephone.

Human Rights Watch said 84 people were killed in Benghazi on Saturday, bringing the death toll in four days of clashes mainly in the country's east to 173 -- before Sunday's fresh violence.

"A massacre took place here last night," one resident, who did not want to be named, said by telephone on Sunday.

A leading tribal figure who requested anonymity said security forces, mainly confined to a compound, had been venturing out of their barracks and shooting protesters in the street in "cat and mouse chases."

Clashes were taking place on a road leading to a cemetery where thousands had gone to bury the dead. "The situation is very tense and scattered fires have erupted in revolutionary committee headquarters and other buildings," he said.

Piecemeal accounts suggested the streets of Benghazi, about 1000 km (600 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, were largely controlled by anti-government protesters, under periodic attack from security forces who fired from their high-walled compound.

A resident said some 100,000 protesters had headed on Sunday for the cemetery "to bury dozens of martyrs" killed on Saturday.

Another witness told Reuters thousands of people had performed ritual prayers in front of 60 bodies laid out in the city. Women and children were among a crowd of hundreds of thousands that had come out onto the Mediterranean seafront and the area surrounding the port, he said.

"The protesters are here until the regime falls," he said.

The Libyan government has not released any casualty figures. A text message sent to mobile phone subscribers on Sunday said protesters in the east were trying to split the country.

"The deaths in Benghazi and Al Bayda (a nearby town), on both sides, were the result of attacks on weapons stores to use in terrorizing people and killing innocents," it said. "All Libyan sons, we have to all stand up to stop the cycle of separation and sedition and destruction of our beloved Libya."

A senior Libyan security source said a group believed to be criminals had launched an attack on the Benghazi municipal building, blew it up, seized rifles and fired randomly in order to create an opportunity to escape.

Following a pattern set in Egypt, the government has disrupted the Internet, used by protesters to organize.

Al Jazeera, the Arabic television station whose coverage has played a big role in protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa, said some of its satellite transmissions across the region had been jammed. The Lebanese telecoms minister said the jamming appeared to come from Libya.

The crackdown prompted about 50 Libyan Muslim religious leaders to issue an appeal, sent to Reuters, for the security forces, as Muslims, to stop the killing.

"We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him) ... Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!" the appeal said.

Libya is a major energy producer with significant investment from Britain's BP Plc, Exxon of the United States and Italy's ENI among others.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Libya to begin dialogue with anti-government protesters and implement reforms, in a phone call to a son of Gaddafi on Sunday.

In Brussels, the Hungarian EU presidency said Libya had told the European Union it would stop cooperation with the bloc in stemming illegal migration to Europe if the EU encourages pro-democracy protests in the country.

At the same time, in Morocco, at least 2,000 protesters gathered in a square in the country's capital to demand that King Mohammed give up some of his powers and clamp down on government corruption.

Some people in the crowd were waving Tunisian and Egyptian flags, a recognition of the popular uprisings there.

Uniformed police kept their distance from the protest, in Rabat's Bab El Ahad area, though there were plain-clothes officers mingling in the crowd with notebooks.

Analysts say Morocco, with a reformist monarch who is widely respected, and a growing economy, is one of the Arab countries least likely to succumb to the wave of protests sweeping the region.

Slogans chanted at the protest included: "The people reject a constitution made for slaves!" and "The people want the autocracy down!"

With heavy rain falling, people used plastic sheets as improvised raincoats.

"This is a peaceful protest to push for constitutional reform, restore dignity and end graft and the plundering of public funds," said Mustapha Muchtati of the Baraka (Enough) group, which helped organize the protest.

The protest was initiated by a group calling itself the February 20 Movement for Change, which has attracted 19,000 followers on the social networking website Facebook.

On the eve of the protest, a Moroccan youth movement said it was pulling out because of disagreements with Islamists and leftists.

Demonstrations were also planned for Morocco's other main cities, including Marrakesh, the top tourist destination.

Morocco is officially a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. But the constitution empowers the king to dissolve the legislature, impose a state of emergency and have a key say in government appointments including the prime minister.

Officials say Morocco's commitment to reform has never been as palpable as under King Mohammed who -- as a member of the Alaouite dynasty that has been ruling Morocco for some 350 years and claims descent from the Prophet Mohammad -- is considered sacred by the constitution.

The call for the protest has been portrayed as a healthy sign by the authorities. The government has worked since the king came to the throne in 1999 to repair a bleak legacy of human rights abuses, poverty and illiteracy left after the 38-year rule of his father, King Hassan II.

But Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar urged citizens to boycott the march, warning that any "slip may in the space of few weeks cost us what we have achieved over the last 10 years".

Officials have voiced concern that Algeria and the Polisario Front, which wants independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, may use upheavals sweeping some Arab countries to stir unrest. Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975.

In Bahrain, thousands of Bahraini protesters set up a tent city in a Manama square that has come to symbolize their cause, some calling for immediate political change and others hoping for talks to resolve the crisis.

Many are starting to call Pearl Square "Martyrs' Circle," in memory of the four killed in Thursday's night-time raid by riot police to clear the area.

Protesters swept back in late on Saturday after Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa ordered troops and armored vehicles to withdraw, and said he would lead a national dialogue after days of unrest that left six dead.

"We will not sit down with murderers. No to dialogue!" one woman shouted, as people handed out bread, fruit and juice.

Along with a medical center and lost-and-found department, tents were being organized and portable toilets brought in.

Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family, whose members dominate a cabinet led by the king's uncle, who has been premier for 40 years.

Shi'ite Muslims account for about 70 percent of the population but feel they have no part in decision-making and face discrimination over state jobs and housing. The seven-year-old parliament acts as a safety valve and the rulers have used their oil wealth to defuse Shi'ite frustrations.

The opposition was expected to put its demands to the crown prince on Sunday, and the Shi'ite party Wefaq repeated its demands for a constitutional monarchy and a directly elected government.

It also wants the withdrawal of security forces, the release of political prisoners and talks on a new constitution, an opposition source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

"All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table," Crown Prince Salman told CNN, adding the king had appointed him to lead talks and build trust with all sides.

"I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, and on that note I would like to extend my condolences to all of the families who lost loved ones and all of those who have been injured. We are terribly sorry and this is a terrible tragedy for our nation," he said.

Inspired by popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, many had hoped that Pearl Square would become a symbol of resistance just as Cairo's Tahrir Square became a focal point of people power.

The crown prince said protesters would "absolutely" be allowed to stay in the square.

Normal life appeared to be returning to the city, with cars moving smoothly along open roads and people walking into shops.

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