Anti-government protests spread to Gaddafi’s Libya

Egypt’s opposition calls to end gas sales to Israel and to keep Mubarak from leaving country.

Libya ship rally 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Libya ship rally 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Libya’s second- largest city on Wednesday to demand the government’s ouster, in the first sign that the region’s unrest has spread to Muammar Gaddafi’s authoritarian state.
Fourteen people, including 10 policemen, were wounded in clashes between security forces and demonstrators in the eastern city of Benghazi overnight, a Libyan security official said. Witnesses said protesters also set fire to security headquarters and a police station in the city of Zentan.
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In Egypt, at least 365 people died in the 18 days of anti-government protests that pushed out president Hosni Mubarak, the Health Ministry said on Wednesday in the first official accounting of the death toll.
Top leaders of the movement that toppled the Mubarak regime said they would demand that the military move more quickly on creating an interim civilian government, cut off natural gas shipments to Israel, and not allow the former president to leave.
Tarek El Khouly, coordinator of the April 6 Youth Movement, said in an interview with USA Today that the group would resume massive demonstrations if its requests were denied. He said the demands will be presented on Thursday at a meeting with the Armed Forces Supreme Council, which is now running the country.
“If the demands are not met, we’ll be on the street again,” El Khouly said. Representatives of the April 6 movement, the main organizers of the protests, will be among 10 democracy activists meeting today with the council.
He said the group believes gas shipments to Israel must cease because the “Zionist entity” is mistreating Palestinians.
The group also dislikes the United States’ support for Israel, he said.
Demonstrators in Benghazi chanted, “No God but Allah, Muammar is the enemy of Allah” and “Down, down to corruption and to the corrupt.”
Police and armed government backers quickly clamped down on the protesters, firing rubber bullets.
As in the uprisings that have toppled longtime autocratic rulers in two countries flanking Libya – Egypt and Tunisia – Libyan activists are using social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter to rally people in their homeland. They called for a major protest on Thursday.
Libya’s official news agency did not carry any word of the anti-government protests. It reported only that supporters of Gaddafi were demonstrating on Wednesday in the capital, Tripoli, as well as in Benghazi and other cities.
JANA, the official news agency, quoted a statement from the pro-Gaddafi demonstrators as pledging to “defend the leader and the revolution.” The statement described the anti-government protesters as “cowards and traitors.”
The protesters on Tuesday and early on Wednesday were apparently provoked by the failure of talks between the government and a committee representing the families of hundreds of inmates killed when security forces opened fire during 1996 riots at Abu Salim, Libya’s most notorious prison. The government has begun to pay families compensation, but the committee is demanding prosecution of those responsible.
Protesters chanted slogans against Gaddafi as well as against Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, according to witnesses and videos posted on the Internet.
The government sought to allay further unrest by proposing the doubling of government employees’ salaries and freeing 110 Islamic militants who were members of a group plotting to overthrow Gaddafi, although it was not clear if the release would occur as scheduled in the wake of the protests.
A Libyan security official said 14 people, including 10 policemen, had been wounded in clashes on Tuesday. He said protesters were armed with knives and stones and that police tried to disperse the crowd using water cannons.
The protests occurred after several opposition groups in exile called on Monday for Gaddafi’s overthrow and for a peaceful transition of power.
“Col. Gaddafi and all his family members should relinquish powers,” the groups said in a statement.
Independent confirmation was not possible as the government keeps tight control over the media, but one video clip dated February 15 and posted on a website called “Libya Uprising Today” showed a gathering running away from gunfire while shots being heard. A young man in a white, bloodstained robe was then shown being carried by protesters.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said a total of nine activists had been arrested in Tripoli and Benghazi in an effort to prevent people from joining Thursday’s rallies.
Those protests were called to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the killing of nine people demonstrating in front of the Italian Consulate against a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad.
In Egypt, Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid said Wednesday’s fatality toll was only a preliminary count of civilians killed and did not include police or prisoners.
And while Mubarak is gone, frustration with the quality of life – from working conditions to environmental concerns – has kept demonstrators in the streets as the economy continues to falter.
Dozens of airport employees protested inside the arrivals terminal at Cairo International Airport to press demands for better wages and health coverage. Their protest did not disrupt flights.
In the industrial Nile Delta city of Mahallah al-Koubra, workers from Egypt’s largest textile factory went on strike over pay and calls for an investigation into corruption at the factory, according to labor rights activist Mustafa Bassiouni.
In Port Said, a coastal city at the northern tip of the Suez canal, about 1,000 people demonstrated to demand that a chemical factory be closed because it was dumping waste in a lake near the city.
Authorities, meanwhile, decided to put back by another week the reopening of schools and universities across the country.
Schools and universities were just starting their midyear break when the protests broke out.
Banks remained closed on Wednesday and would remain shut on Thursday, the last day of the business week in Egypt. There was no word on whether they would reopen on Sunday, the start of the business week.
The stock market has been closed for three weeks and, again, there was no word on when it would resume operating. The market lost nearly 17 percent of its value in two tumultuous sessions in late January before it was ordered shut to halt the slide.
In Yemen, 2,000 policemen were sent into the streets to try to put down the sixth day of protests against Ali Abdullah Saleh, the US-allied president of 32 years. Witnesses say at least four protesters were wounded in scuffles with police on Wednesday.
The policemen, including plainclothes officers, fired in the air and blocked thousands of students at Sanaa University from joining thousands of other protesters elsewhere in the capital.
In Iraq, about 2,000 demonstrators attacked government offices in a southern province, ripping up pavement stones to throw at a regional council headquarters in a protest over shoddy public services that left dozens of people wounded, officials said.
The top medical official in Wasit province said 55 people had been injured – three critically – during protests in the city of Kut, 160 km. southeast of Baghdad. He said some of them were shot by police while others were hit by stones or suffered burns.
And in Jordan, more than 100 Muslim clerics demanded in a statement that the government shut down all nightclubs in the country and combat prostitution. “We demand the government close all nightclubs, which work under the pretext of promoting tourism,” 109 clerics, among them a former cabinet minister, MPs, Islamist leaders, university professors and mosque preachers, said in the joint statement.
“We also demand the authorities combat prostitution and brothels, and introduce laws that fight all anti-Islamic and unethical acts which destroy our society,” the statement said.
A group of MPs has separately asked the government to close nightclubs in two western Amman streets named after Mecca and Medina because “it is insulting to Islam and Muslims.” There are around 60 nightclubs in Jordan, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Beduin tribesmen blocked the road to Amman’s airport during a demonstration calling on the government to restore lands it acquired for development projects, one of the protesters said on Wednesday. Tuesday night’s demonstration saw more than 500 people of the Bani Sakhr tribe, one of the largest in Jordan, staging a sit-in on the main road leading to the international airport, south of the capital, he said.
“We demand the government return thousands of hectares we have been authorized to use for decades for agriculture,” the protester told AFP.
“For example, the government took from us 2,200 hectares to build the airport,” in the early 1980s, he said, adding that police later dispersed the sit-in without incident.
In 1952, the government authorized the tribes, the backbone of the kingdom, to use lands for agriculture and housing, but they were not registered in their names.
Successive governments had to acquire these lands for investment and development, but the tribes say they have been excluded from the projects.
They say they have been authorized to use 2,500 hectares in southeast Jordan. A government committee headed by the interior minister is examining their requests.