Sunday, February 20, 2011

Update on Protests in Bahrain and Libya

Bahrain Protesters Reoccupy Square, while Libya Protests Continue

Jubilant and newly confident Bahrain protesters poured back into Pearl Square Saturday after the Army withdrew. In Libya, protests were met with deadly force and Internet access was cut.

By Nancy A. Youssef
The Christian Science Monitor
February 19, 2011

Manama, Bahrain - The Bahraini Army pulled out its tanks and police withdrew their forces from the main demonstration site Saturday, allowing thousands of jubilant protesters to pour back to what they called "their land" just one day after violent clashes.

But whether the sight of cheering, crying, and grateful Bahraini protesters pouring into Pearl Square was the beginning of negotiations between the monarchy and the opposition groups or a pause between clashes remained unclear. Even as they chanted "we are victorious," some protesters wondered whether they were being set up for an ambush by a military that was plotting to return.

Regardless, the sight of forces relinquishing control of the heavily fought-over square gave them a sense of confidence not seen since the protests began nearly a week ago.

As they ran toward the square Saturday, protesters vowed to stay and indeed started preparing for a long battle. They waved flags even as they set up tents to spend the night. They blasted chants from their loudspeakers as they collected rubber bullets to prove that the Army fired on them the last time they were here. They cleaned up bags of onions left for protesters to use if they were struck by tear gas and instead set up an on-scene medical hospital.

The opposition had said it would not consider an offer by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for national dialogue until the military left the streets. The troops began pulling out of the square around 12:30 p.m. and the police moved in. At 3:25 p.m., police officers got into SUVs and drove off in dramatic fashion. A line of more than 60 vehicles drove off together to the loud cheers of protesters who had not been blocked from entering the square.

Libya using deadly force

The relative calm in Bahrain contrasted with Libya, where the regime of long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi reportedly was using deadly force to try to suppress protests demanding an end to his rule that have gripped the eastern part of the country.

Fathi, a resident of Benghazi, Libya's second city, said the sounds of gunfire could be heard from the city center, where thousands of protesters remained in the cold rain despite attacks by security forces. More government troops were arriving in the city by plane, he said by telephone.

"I don't know how it's going to end," said Fathi, who asked that his last name not be used. The government cut off Libya's Internet connections early Saturday. "There are a lot more deaths than they [the media] are saying," he said.

At least 84 people have died in three days of protests in Libya, Human Rights Watch said, based on telephone interviews with witnesses and hospital staff.

In Sanaa, Yemen's capital, one person was killed and several injured in ongoing clashes.

Bahrain's crown prince talking to opposition?

Here in Bahrain, the monarchy's crown prince, who the king delegated Friday to lead a national dialogue, began negotiations with some opposition groups including Shiite leaders in this Sunni-led country, Bahraini officials suggested Saturday.

The call for dialogue came after a dramatic showdown between the Army and the protesters for control of the square a day earlier. The Army fired live ammunition and tear gas, injuring at least 66 people and raising the ire of protesters.

President Obama called the US-backed king Friday evening and "strongly urged the government of Bahrain to show restraint, and to hold those responsible for the violence accountable," the White House said in a statement.

The bloodshed marked a major escalation in the crisis, which began Monday in Manama with a protest for democratic reforms. It was inspired by the popular revolts that drove out the aging despotic rulers of Egypt and Tunisia. Those revolts are fueling anti-regime movements across the volatile region.

The reopening of the square was "a milestone," said Ebrahim Sharif, an opposition leader for Waad, one of the main opposition groups. Constitutional reforms and the resignation of top government leaders must come next, he said.

"The government has to show that they are serious, that they are not doing this just for the international community," Sharif said.

The opposition is calling for a general strike Monday.

In Libya, government mercenaries, many natives of nearby African countries, were attacking demonstrators, according to Libyan expatriates and reports on social networking sites. One video showed a dead African man, dressed in camouflage and spattered with blood, being hauled into what appeared to be a hospital.

Human Rights Watch reported that Libya's political and economic capital, Tripoli, remained quiet compared to the east of the country. On Friday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in the eastern cities of Benghazi, Baida, Ajdabiya, Zawiya, and Derna. Those gatherings followed what Human Rights Watch described as "violent attacks against peaceful protest" on Thursday that killed 20 people in Benghazi, 23 in Baida, three in Ajdabiya, and three in Derna. Hospital sources told Human Rights Watch that security forces killed 35 people in Benghazi on Friday, almost all with live ammunition.

Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces wearing distinctive yellow uniforms opened fire on protesters near the Fadil Bu Omar Katiba, a security force base in the center of Benghazi. One protester told Human Rights Watch he witnessed four men shot dead. In Baida, further to the east, protesters on Friday buried the 23 people who had been shot dead the day before. One protester told Human Rights Watch that police were patrolling the streets but he had seen no further clashes.

Warren P. Strobel and Erika Bolstad contributed from Washington.

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