Clashes in Libya Worsen as Army Crushes Dissent
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
February 18, 2011
CAIRO — Thousands gathered Friday for a third day of violent demonstrations in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, in an unprecedented challenge to the mercurial 41-year reign of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Human rights groups said 24 people had been killed across the North African country, though activists say the count may be far higher.
The escalating unrest bears the hallmarks of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, as protesters copy slogans heard there. But as in Bahrain and Iran, the police and the army have moved quickly to crush unrest. Residents say the government has mobilized young civilian supporters in the capital and other towns and deployed foreign mercenaries in eastern Libya, long the most restive region.
Libya demonstrates both the power and the limits of the Arab uprisings. The country, though the most isolated in the region, is not disconnected enough to black out the news of autocrats falling in two of its immediate neighbors. But information about what is happening inside Libya — and the ability of protesters to mobilize world opinion on their behalf — is far more limited.
A refrain of opposition leaders was that the world was failing to act, even as they sought to post videos, statements and testimony on social networking sites with mixed success.
“The international community is watching,” said Issa Abdel Majeed Mansour, an opposition figure based in Oslo. “Why isn’t anyone helping us?”
As the Libyan clashes worsened, a violent crackdown continued in Bahrain on Friday, where government forces opened fire on hundreds of mourners marching toward Pearl Square and at least one helicopter sprayed fire on peaceful protesters. There were also violent confrontations on Friday in Yemen and Jordan.
Since seizing power in a coup in 1969, Colonel Qaddafi has imposed his idiosyncratic rule on Libya, one of the world’s biggest exporters of oil. With a population of just 6.4 million, the country is one of the region’s wealthiest, though eastern Libya and Benghazi have witnessed periodic uprisings. Tripoli, the capital, has also had sporadic protests but remains firmly in the government’s grip, residents say.
“I don’t see them being easily overpowered, especially at this point, because of the powers of the Libyan security forces and their tendency to crack down very brutally on protests,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in contact with residents in Libya. “I’m not saying it will never happen, but it won’t happen today.”
Residents reached by telephone said the most intense unrest was in Benghazi and Bayda, a city about 125 miles to the northeast. As many as 15,000 people gathered in front of the courthouse in Benghazi on Friday, and security forces withdrew from at least part of the city by the afternoon, residents said. The residents saw the withdrawal as a sign of withering authority.
“Security has retreated to allow the protesters to march because the masses are in a state of extreme anger,” said one of the protesters, Idris Ahmed al-Agha, a writer and activist. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think it’s going to escalate.”
In the background, demonstrators’ chants could be heard. “The people want to topple the government!” they cried, an expression first heard in protests in Tunisia, then picked up by the demonstrators in Cairo’s uprising.
Judging by funerals and residents’ accounts, Mr. Agha put the toll at 50 in Benghazi. Other opposition activists said 60 had died there and dozens more in Bayda, though Libya’s isolation made the numbers difficult to verify. Citing doctors’ reports in Benghazi, Samira Boussalma, a member of Amnesty International’s North Africa team, said a majority of those killed were shot in the head and the chest. An opposition figure, citing a source at the Jalaa Hospital there, said that most of the dead were 13 to 36 years old and that as many as 50 people had been wounded.
Opposition groups said protesters had wrested control of several towns, including Bayda and Darnah, a northeastern port, though the degree of their authority seemed ambiguous. They said several police stations had been burned across Libya, and Mr. Agha said a military building was attacked in Benghazi.
In Kufrah, an oasis town in Libya’s southeast, protests were planned after Friday Prayer, but security forces deployed outside mosques, forbade demonstrations, then allowed worshipers to leave one by one, said Badawi Altobawi, an activist there.
He said the military had deployed in force to counter a second day of demonstrations, where protesters chanted Thursday, “Long live a free Libya.”
“We will keep protesting until the regime falls,” he said. “There is no going back. This is a protest led by the youth. They went out, as did their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. It was a spontaneous move, but now we are getting organized.”
Another protester reached by phone, who declined to be identified, citing safety concerns, said demonstrators had burned a building in Kufrah belonging to the so-called revolutionary committees, one of the instruments of Colonel Qaddafi’s peculiar brand of authoritarian leadership. Pictures circulated on the Internet showed protesters tearing down a statue for his Green Book, a three-volume tract that outlines his vision of that rule.
Known officially as the Brotherly Leader and the Guide of the Revolution, Colonel Qaddafi has gone from a self-styled prophet of third world liberation to an erratic partner of Europe and the United States, which re-established ties with Libya in 2006. In September 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya in a tour of North Africa.
His relations with his Arab neighbors are unstable. While he lashed out at Tunisians for overthrowing President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, his rambling rants at Arab League meetings have long ruffled counterparts, Saudi Arabia among them.
The Libyan news agency said he toured parts of Tripoli early on Friday to rally support for his government, which seemed fully ready to use force to crush dissent. After nightfall, opposition figures said hundreds had gathered to protest in the capital — reports that, if true, could mark a noteworthy turn in opposition.
“Any risk from these minuscule groups — the people and the noble revolutionary power will violently and thunderously respond,” said a pro-government newspaper, Al Zahf Al Akhdar. It called Colonel Qaddafi one of several red lines in the country. “Those who try to cross or come near these lines are suicidal and playing with fire,” it added.
Meanwhile, protesters turned up the pressure on other Arab governments on Friday. A demonstration in Amman, Jordan, turned violent as government supporters clashed with protesters calling for political change, injuring several, witnesses said.
Antigovernment protests, though rare for Jordan, have become routine on Fridays since uprisings swept Egypt and Tunisia. But this was the first time that one ended in confrontation.
The protest began peacefully outside the King Hussein Mosque in Amman, according to participants, with the demonstrators calling for an end to corruption and constitutional monarchy and for the lowering of prices. Then, participants said, more than a hundred government supporters surrounded and attacked them.
Similar clashes between demonstrators for and against the government broke out in Yemen, where turmoil continued for an eighth day. The violence began when thugs with sticks ran down rivals calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Rival groups also engaged in street fights in the city of Taiz, 130 miles south of the Yemeni capital, Sana. Reuters reported that a grenade exploded in a large crowd of protesters who had gathered in the city’s Hurriya, or Freedom, Square. At least eight people were wounded in the blast, the agency reported.
The protests in Taiz, where thousands of students have set up encampments, have appeared more intractable than the daily skirmishes in Sana. The police there have arrested more than 100 demonstrators in recent days as the nation fights over the future of Mr. Saleh’s 32-year-old American-backed government.
Reporting was contributed by Nada Bakri from Beirut, Mona El-Naggar from Cairo, Ranya Kadri from Amman and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.