CAIRO — Protesters clashed Friday with security forces in the Libyan capital of Tripoli and fought for control of key eastern cities in the most serious challenge to dictator Moammar Gadhafi's 42 years in power, according to witnesses, online posts and news reports.
The Libyan bloodshed appeared to be the worst in the Middle East on a day that also saw troops fire on pro-democracy protesters in the Persian Gulf sheikdom of Bahrain and intense confrontations pitting protesters against security forces and government loyalists in Yemen.
Across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, riot police used tear gas and batons to break up a protest by several thousand anti-government demonstrators in Djibouti, a city-state of 750,000 people in the Horn of Africa that hosts the only U.S. military base in Africa.
"The Arab world is experiencing a domino effect," said Ghada el Sherif, 40, a demonstrator in Cairo.
In Libya, there were unconfirmed reports of many deaths and injuries on the third day of clashes between security forces and regime loyalists on one side and protesters inspired by the popular uprisings that ousted former rulers of Egypt and Tunisia on the other.
"We are hearing now the gunfire. We are hearing explosions from everywhere," Braikah, a doctor, told McClatchy by telephone from Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city. She asked that her last name not be used for her own security. More than 30 people have been killed in Benghazi alone, and hundreds injured, she said.
Amnesty International, citing sources at Benghazi's main hospital, put the casualty toll since Wednesday at 46 dead and more than 100 injured, and accused Gadhafi's security forces of "recklessly shooting at anti-government protesters."
At least 66 people were injured in Bahrain by live ammunition and tear gas inhalation. In Yemen, at least three people were killed and nearly 50 wounded, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo's central Tahrir Square to mark a week since former President Hosni Mubarak's ouster and to remind the transitional military authority that mass protests would continue if there weren't speedy, transparent moves toward civilian rule.
The political upheavals ignited in the region by the self-immolation in December of an unemployed Tunisian man who was desperate to feed his family have left the Obama administration largely powerless to affect events that hold major security and economic consequences for the United States and other powers.
With the petroleum-fueled U.S. economy dependent on Middle East oil and Washington closely allied with Israel, the United States for decades backed many of the region's despotic rulers and monarchs, choosing the iron-fisted stability they provided over the frustrations of populations denied political and human rights.
But as Egypt's 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising gathered pace, President Barack Obama swung U.S. sympathy toward the largely young pro-reform protesters, who've organized via Facebook, Twitter and other online sites.
Obama maintained that policy swing Friday, criticizing the use of force by regimes in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, a longtime ally where the U.S. 5th Fleet is headquartered.
"I am deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur," the president said in a statement. "We express our condolences to the family and friends of those who have been killed during the demonstrations."
"Wherever they are, people have certain universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly," he continued. "The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people."
Later Friday, during a phone call with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Obama "strongly urged the government of Bahrain to show restraint, and to hold those responsible for the violence accountable," the White House said in a statement. A nearly identical call for restraint by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday was ignored by the regime, which instead attacked unarmed protesters.
The violence in Libya represented the biggest crisis for Gadhafi since he seized power in a bloodless 1969 coup and imposed one of region's most ruthless authoritarian systems on his country of 6.4 million people. Establishing independent political parties or trade unions there is a crime punishable by death.
The worst violence occurred in Benghazi, Beyida, Darnah and other towns along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Sidra, close to the Egyptian border, according to news reports, posts on the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook, and witnesses reached by telephone.
Posts on Twitter and Facebook also reported unrest in and around Tripoli, raising the stakes for Gadhafi, the Arab world's longest-ruling dictator.
A group calling itself the Libya Youth Movement began unprecedented anti-Gadhafi broadcasts over an Internet radio station, while recordings of ordinary Libyans describing the turmoil were posted on another Website, feb17voices.
Omar Kdai, a Libyan expatriate journalist based in Holland, told McClatchy that his contacts in the country reported that uprisings erupted Friday night in the capital and in the western city of Elzawia.
"There were 300 people. Cops came and shot at us, arrested people and cut us off. We were trying to escape," said a feb17voices recording by an unidentified woman in Tripoli. Another person asked what they were chanting, and the woman replied: "Libya, east and west!"
"They cut the power in many places in Benghazi, almost a third of Benghazi. An appeal to donate blood. The tanks are flowing and we can hear live gunfire, Kalashnikovs," cried a man speaking from the city in one feb17voices recording. "To all the international organizations, this has become revenge. This is more than just peaceful demonstrations. This has become the revenge of the protesters."
Braikah, the doctor, described Benghazi as a tense city in which it was unclear who was in control.
Thousands of protesters were in the streets, she said. Government opponents had taken over the main radio station and had flown Libya's old, pre-Gadhafi flag in front of the court, she said, where protesters were saluting it.
The protesters "want the regime to go out. They want the immediate resignation" of Gadhafi, she said, adding that some troops had joined the demonstrations.
Security forces attacked demonstrators in Benghazi and other cities with hot water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition, she said, and the regime deployed mercenaries from nearby African countries to fight, a charge repeated by posters on Twitter and Facebook.
"They are attacking us in every street and in every city," she said.
"I am not afraid to die. It's my country. Young people are dying in the street. We must give for our country to make freedom," said a female lawyer in her forties whom McClatchy reached in Benghazi, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "We want freedom. It's 43 years. No education. No money. Poor people."
If Gadhafi is ousted, "it will be good," she said. "The people, now they want everything right here. We are not living here in Libya. We are dead."
Internet service and outgoing international telephone calls were said to be cut off, and the government had severed electricity in the heart of Benghazi.
Mohammad Eljahmi, a Libyan expatriate living in the Boston area who was in touch with acquaintances in Libya, said anxiety had replaced his "initial exhilaration" over the anti-Gadhafi protests.
"This man has been in power 43 years," he said. "He can make this ugly,"
The violence in the Bahraini capital, Manama, erupted after the funerals of four protesters, who'd been killed a day earlier when security forces charged sleeping anti-government protesters who were occupying central Pearl Square.
Thousands left the funerals to march back to the giant traffic circle, where they found soldiers and armored vehicles. As many knelt in evening prayer, the troops fired live ammunition and tear gas, igniting stampedes into nearby streets.
In Cairo, record crowds crammed into Tahrir Square to hear an Egyptian-born cleric, Sheik Youssef el Qaradawi, whose televised sermons are watched by millions of Muslims, lead Friday prayers.
Qaradawi stressed that political reform was still unfinished.
"I call on the Egyptian army to liberate us from the government that Mubarak formed," he told the crowd to cheers.
Many protesters said the Egyptian military's opaqueness in recent days frustrated them. Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is now in charge, warned that further protests and labor strikes wouldn't be tolerated, but the generals have released few updates on a promise to secure the country for elections within six months.
(Landay and Strobel reported from Washington. Ibrahim is a McClatchy special correspondent. Margaret Talev in Washington, Nancy A. Youssef in Manama, Bahrain, and special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo contributed to this article.)
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