New bloodshed reported in Libya as Gadhafi battles protests

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 20, 2011 

CAIRO, Egypt — Libyan protesters in the flashpoint city of Benghazi gathered again Sunday to demand the overthrow of leader Moammar Gadhafi in an uprising that’s left more than 100 dead and hundreds wounded, according to human rights groups and Libyan activists. Some activists’ unverified casualty figures put the dead at 200 or more.

Gadhafi, known for his anti-Western rhetoric and flamboyant style, has launched a bloody campaign against the wave of revolt that’s already unseated neighboring authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt and continues to sweep across the region.

The unrest in the oil-rich North African nation is the most serious challenge yet to Gadhafi’s 42-year-old regime, which has used sniper fire and other deadly force to stop the demonstrations, according to witnesses and hospital officials.

Amnesty International, the international human rights advocacy group, warned Sunday against a “spiraling death toll” and urged Gadhafi to “immediately rein in his security forces amid reports of machine guns and other weapons being used against protesters.”

After the success of Tunisian and Egyptian protests, youth-driven, Internet-fueled revolts have erupted in Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen and Iraq, along with smaller demonstrations in several other Arab countries. In almost all the uprisings, demonstrators calling for elected rulers and other reforms face deadly state force and barriers to phone and Internet access.

The rebellion in the Arab world also has energized the opposition in nearby Iran. Thousands of Iranians, responding to opposition leaders’ calls, took to the rainy streets of Tehran and other cities in fresh protests against the hard-line Islamic regime, according to a human rights group and Iranian bloggers.

Demonstrators clashed with security forces on Valiasr Street, the capital’s main thoroughfare, and other areas parts of the city, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said, quoting telephone interviews with witnesses.

There were unconfirmed reports of security forces firing live ammunition, and unknown numbers of casualties and arrests.

The human rights group and posts by Iranian bloggers on the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter also spoke of clashes in the cities of Shiraz, Hamedan, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Rasht.

The protests were staged in defiance of stern government warnings, with a state news service claiming that protesters were in danger of being shot by armed infiltrators.

Opposition groups called the protests to mark a week since the killing of two people by security forces during demonstrations staged in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

The protests are the first since the regime crushed months of nationwide demonstrations in late 2009 over a disputed June 2009 presidential election.

Protesters in Bahrain maintained a tentative hold on their encampment in the capital’s main square Sunday, a day after security forces withdrew in the wake of several deadly clashes. Authorities fired live ammunition to disperse the demonstrators, according to witnesses and video footage of the violence. Protesters vowed to stay in the square and fight if the security forces return.

Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, the U.S.-backed monarch whose Sunni government rules over a marginalized Shiite majority, issued an appeal for calm and said the government would meet opposition leaders to discuss reforms.

The Khalifa regime is under international pressure after TV footage and photographs showed Bahraini authorities shooting at protesters, along with images of dead or bloodied protesters piled into an overwhelmed hospital. The outrage mounted when forces also attacked the funerals of slain demonstrators.

In Yemen, hundreds of students gathered Sunday for an eighth day of rallies against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’s led the impoverished nation for 32 years. Over the weekend, at least one protester was killed and seven were injured in clashes with supporters of, according to news reports.

In Algeria, riot police reportedly stopped 500 protesters who’d staged a march through the capital’s city center.

The protests also spread to Iraq, where Kurds and Arabs took to the streets this weekend to demand better services, human rights, investigations into government corruption and other political or economic changes. Sporadic, mostly small protests also have sprung up in Baghdad and in the predominantly Shiite south, where residents are frustrated by the lack of security, jobs and basic services.

In Egypt, a panel of legal experts drafting constitutional amendments to allow more political competition was expected to give a progress report Sunday. A cabinet reshuffle also is imminent, Egyptian officials say, to help appease widespread fears that ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s regime is still intact and angling to reclaim power.

Unlike the Egyptian revolution, which played out on live television, the news from Libya is difficult to verify as the authorities shut out foreign journalists and disrupt Internet service. State media only transmits news of pro-Gadhafi demonstrations. The government hasn’t released casualty figures or made any official comment on the crisis.

Some Libyan protesters have managed to circumvent the media blackout, sending chilling amateur videos and firsthand accounts of the violence to the world via Twitter and Facebook. They’ve also turned to online radio sites that allow anonymous residents to leave audio messages, generally Libyans issuing desperate pleas for international attention and medical assistance.

New messages Sunday on a radio site included purported witness accounts of hospitals in dire need of blood donations, gunfire coming from military vehicles and of youths lobbing Molotov cocktails at Libyan security forces. The callers also accused Gadhfi of dispatching African mercenaries to put down the demonstrations.

In a YouTube video that was labeled as footage from a protest in the northern coastal city of Mesrata, protesters chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime,” the main slogan of the Egyptian revolution. Libyan opposition websites complained that videos of the unrest that are posted online are quickly removed or disabled.

A YouTube video posted Sunday by an anonymous Libyan teacher showed dozens of protesters chanting, “Libya!” in an unnamed city.

A voice is heard yelling, “A man has died because of police bullets! A man has died!” Sobbing, wailing protesters attempt to revive the man before he’s taken from the scene in a car, the footage shows. The protesters then start to run, screaming, “Free Libya! Libya!”

(Allam and special correspondent Naggar reported from Cairo, Youssef from Manama, Bahrain, and special correspondent Issa from Baghdad.)

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