'Libyan soldiers defect to protesters’ side in Benghazi'

Pro-Gaddafi forces again fire on mourners at funeral march; death toll in clashes with demonstrators believed to exceed 200; turmoil spreads to Morocco.

Libya protests 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Libya protests 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Libyan forces in the eastern city of Benghazi fired machine guns at thousands of mourners during a funeral for slain anti-government protesters on Sunday, a day after commandos and foreign mercenaries loyal to longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi attacked demonstrators with assault rifles and heavy weapons.
Also on Sunday, members of a Libyan army unit told Benghazi residents that they had defected and “liberated” the city from pro-Gaddafi forces, according to two prominent residents.
Iran’s opposition to hold mass protestsProtesters flood Bahrain capital square as military leaves
Habib al-Obaidi, who heads the intensive care unit at the city’s main Al-Jalae Hospital, and lawyer Muhammad al- Mana told Reuters that members of the “Thunderbolt” squad had arrived at the hospital with soldiers wounded in clashes with Gaddafi’s personal guard.
“They are now saying that they have overpowered the Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people’s revolt,” Mana said by telephone.
A doctor at one Benghazi hospital where many of Sunday’s casualties were taken said 20 people had been killed.
US-based Human Rights Watch said 173 people died – mostly in Benghazi – during three days of unrest from Thursday through Saturday.
The latest numbers brought the toll to at least 204 since Wednesday, although a precise count has been difficult because of Libya’s tight restrictions on reporting.
Sunday also marked the entry of Morocco into the ranks of Arab popular uprisings, as thousands demonstrated in cities across the North African kingdom demanding a new constitution and democratic reforms.
The crackdown in oil-rich Libya is shaping up to be the most brutal repression of the anti-government protests that began with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The protests spread quickly, and have even reached outside the Middle East to places that include the east African nation of Djibouti and even China.
Because of the government-imposed media blackout, information about the Libyan uprising, which follows 40 years of authoritarian rule, has come through telephone interviews, along with videos and messages posted online, and through opposition activists in exile. The blackout has made it difficult to confirm the numbers of dead and wounded, but the unrest has spread to more than half a dozen cities.
Benghazi, the second largest with some 1 million people, has been at the center of unrest.
A man shot in the leg Sunday said marchers were carrying coffins to a cemetery in the city and were passing by the compound when security forces fired in the air and then opened up on the crowd. The doctor who put Sunday’s death toll at 20 said his facility was out of supplies and could not treat more than 70 wounded.
The latest violence in Benghazi followed the same pattern as the crackdown on Saturday, when witnesses said forces loyal to Gaddafi attacked mourners at a funeral for anti-government protesters.
They were burying 35 marchers who were slain Friday by government forces.
On Sunday, defiant mourners chanted: “The people demand the removal of the regime,” which had been a mantra for protesters in Egypt and Tunisia.
The US-based Arbor Networks reported another Internet service outage in Libya just before midnight Saturday night. The company said online traffic in the North African country had stopped at about 2 that morning and was restored at reduced levels several hours later, only to be cut off again that night.
People in Libya also said they could no longer make international telephone calls on their land lines.
In Morocco, demonstrators shouted slogans calling for economic opportunity, educational reform, better health services and help in coping with the rising cost of living during a march on the central Hassan II Avenue in the capital, Rabat.
The main target of Sunday’s rallies was parliament, where many Moroccans fear their voices are not heard.
Still, the protests are likely to put pressure on King Mohammed VI, who has been seen as a reformer compared to his iron-fisted father, Hassan II, but still holds absolute authority.
A sea of white banners covered Casablanca’s rain-splattered Mohammed V square, where young men in baseball caps and hoods joined young women in Islamic head scarves and middle-aged women in black-rimmed glasses and earrings in the diverse crowd.
Plainclothes police mingled among the demonstrators in Rabat, though police were generally discreet. There were no immediate reports of clashes between protesters and authorities.
The so-called “February 20 movement” was largely summoned through social media like Facebook. But the open call to demonstrate also caused confusion, as disparate political and religious groups elbowed their way in and sought to reshape a protest movement to serve their own ends.
One youth-led group initially behind the call to march – whose name translates as the Freedom and Democracy Now Movement – canceled plans to take part on Saturday, saying the movement had been hijacked by leftist political parties and Islamists seeking to infuse ideology and faith issues.
The official news agency MAP cited a “weak turnout” – including 2,000 both in Rabat and the northeastern city of Beni Bouayach; 1,000 in each of Casablanca, Al Hoceima and Targuist; and 900 in the tourism city of Marrakech – although an Associated Press reporter in Rabat estimated the turnout there at 3,000 to 5,000. Organizers put the turnout outside the parliament building at 20,000.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s embattled president sought a way out of the political crisis gripping his impoverished Arab nation, offering to oversee a dialogue between his ruling party and the opposition to defuse the ongoing standoff with protesters demanding his ouster.
The offer by the US-backed Ali Abdullah Saleh came Sunday as protests demanding that he step down continued for the 11th straight day, with 3,000 university students demonstrating Sunday in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital.
The protests pose the most serious challenge to Saleh’s rule to date. He has already made a series of concessions, pledging that his son would not succeed him and that he would not seek another term in office. On Sunday, he repeated his offer for negotiations.
“Dialogue is the best means, not sabotage or cutting off roads,” Saleh, in office for more than 30 years, told a news conference. “I am ready to sit at the negotiating table and meet their demands if they are legitimate.”
The Yemeni leader also warned about “infiltrators” seeking to divide Yemenis and sabotage the country.
Saleh’s rule continues to show signs of resilience in the face of the sustained protests that have seen security forces and regime supporters battling demonstrators, most of them university students. The regime, however, is not doing as well in the south of the country, where resentment of Saleh’s rule is far more entrenched and a secessionist movement is steadily gaining strength.
There have been deadly clashes there between protesters and security forces using live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. South Yemen used to be an independent nation, but became united with the north in 1990. An attempt by the South to secede in 1994 was brutally crushed by Saleh’s army and allied tribesmen.
Yemen is a tribal society where almost every adult male has a firearm.
A decision by the country’s major tribes to take sides in the standoff between Saleh and his critics could decide the president’s fate.
On Saturday, riot police fired on marchers in Sana’a, killing one and wounding five. A total of seven people have been killed since the unrest began.