20 killed in Libya clashes

Libyan "day of rage" protesters defy Gadhafi crackdown; Bahrain bans protests, calls deadly crackdown "regrettable."

By OREN KESSLER, AP
February 17, 2011 18:39
Protests in Libya

libya protest 311. (photo credit: Screenshot)

 
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Tremors of revolt continued to shake the Arab world on Thursday, as a handful of long-standing authoritarian regimes scrambled to put down popular unrest inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Libyan protesters took to the streets in four cities in what activists have dubbed a “day of rage,” amid reports that at least 20 demonstrators have been killed in clashes with pro-government groups.

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In Bahrain, troops and tanks locked down the capital after riot police swinging clubs and firing tear gas smashed into demonstrators, many of them sleeping, in a pre-dawn assault that uprooted their makeshift camp and that medical officials said cost the lives of four protesters.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Libyan internal security forces had arrested at least 14 people. Hundreds of pro-government demonstrators also rallied in the capital, Tripoli, blocking traffic in some areas, witnesses said.

An opposition website and an activist working against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime said unrest broke out during marches in four Libyan cities on Thursday. Organizers were using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to call for nationwide demonstrations.

Opposition website Libya al-Youm said four protesters were slain by snipers from the Internal Security Forces in the eastern city of Beyida, which saw protests on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s not clear when the protesters were killed. The website also said there was a demonstration on Thursday in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, and that security forces had shot and killed six people with live ammunition.



Switzerland-based Libyan activist Fathi al- Warfali said 11 protesters were killed in Beyida on Wednesday night, and scores were wounded.

He said the government had dispatched army commandos to quell the uprising.

Libya al-Youm said protesters set out on Thursday, after the funeral for those killed a day earlier, toward the State Security building, chanting, “Free Libya, Gaddafi get out!” Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, noted that Libya differed starkly from its North African neighbors that had already overthrown their respective leaders. Tunisia and Egypt, he said, have large populations of college-educated young people frustrated by a paucity of jobs and eager to institute political and economic reforms. Libya, with its minuscule middle class, may well have to wait longer before it deposes its own decades-long leader.

Gaddafi’s government has moved quickly to try to stop Libyans from joining the wave of uprisings in the Middle East that have ousted the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. It has proposed the doubling of government employees’ salaries and released 110 suspected Islamic insurgents who oppose him – tactics similar to those adopted by other Arab regimes facing recent mass protests.

An autocrat who has ruled for more than 40 years, Gaddafi also has been meeting with tribal leaders to solicit their support. State television reported on Tuesday that Gaddafi spoke with representatives of the Ben Ali tribe, one of Libya’s biggest clans and one that has branches in neighboring Egypt.

The official news agency JANA said Thursday’s pro-government rallies were intended to express “eternal unity with the brother leader of the revolution,” as Gaddafi is known.

Witnesses in the capital said many government supporters were raising Libyan flags from their cars and chanting slogans in favor of Gaddafi. They said it was otherwise business as usual in the capital and stores remained open.

In Bahrain, meanwhile, just hours after the attack on Manama’s main Pearl Square, the military announced a ban on gatherings, saying on state TV that it had “key parts” of the capital under its control.

Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa justified the crackdown as necessary because the demonstrators were “polarizing the country” and pushing it to the “brink of the sectarian abyss.” Speaking to reporters after meeting with his Gulf counterparts, he also said the violence was “regrettable.”

After several days of holding back, the island nation’s Sunni rulers unleashed a heavy crackdown on Thursday. In the surprise assault, police tore down protesters’ tents, beating men and women inside and blasting some with shotgun sprays of birdshot. It was a sign of how deeply the Sunni monarchy – and other Arab regimes in the Gulf – fear the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests, led by members of the country’s Shi’ite majority but also joined by growing numbers of discontented Sunnis.

Bahrain’s rulers and their Arab allies depict any sign of unrest among their Shi’ite populations as a move by Shi’ite-majority Iran to expand its clout in the region.

Shmuel Bar of the Institute of Policy and Strategy said the protesters in Bahrain are seeking not the ouster of the ruling regime, but merely enfranchisement. He noted that the United States has tended to withhold support from anti-government movements in states hostile to it, for fear that support from Washington would render the opposition popular.

The US, he said, is “softer on anti-American regimes” than on its allies.

“How can America, which supported a change of government in Egypt, not support people who are saying, ‘We’re 70 percent of the population and we’re disenfranchised?’” Bar asked.

Nonetheless, he noted that the implications of a government overthrow in Bahrain for both the US and Israel would be serious. With a majority Shi’ite population, he said, Bahrainis would be likely to vote in a government more distant from the US and closer to Iran. Last month, a commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards caused a diplomatic incident between Tehran and Manama by describing Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province.”

Thursday’s assault may only further enrage protesters, who before the attack had called for large rallies on Friday. In the wake of the bloodshed, angry demonstrators chanted “The regime must go,” and burned pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa outside the emergency ward at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital.

The Obama administration expressed alarm over the violent crackdown. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Bahrain’s foreign minister to register Washington’s “deep concern” and urge restraint. Similar criticism came from Britain and the European Union.

The assault came early on Thursday with little warning, demonstrators said. Police surrounded the square and then quickly moved in. Some lined up on a bridge overhead, pumping down volleys of tear gas, as others waded into the camp, knocking down tents and swinging truncheons at those inside.

“We yelled, ‘We are peaceful! Peaceful!’” said protester Mahmoud Mansouri. “The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us.”

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