By MAGGIE MICHAEL, Associated Press Feb. 16, 2011
CAIRO – Egypt-inspired unrest spread against Libya's longtime dictator
Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday, with riot police clashing with protesters in
the second-largest city of Benghazi and marchers setting fire to security
headquarters and police stations in two other cities, witnesses said.
Gadhafi's government sought to allay further unrest by proposing the
doubling of government employees' salaries and releasing 110 suspected
Islamic militants who oppose him — tactics similar to those adopted by
other Arab regimes in the recent wave of protests.
Activists using Facebook and Twitter have called for nationwide
demonstrations on Thursday to demand the ouster of Gadhafi, the
establishment of a constitution and comprehensive political and economic
reforms. Gadhafi came to power in 1969 through a military coup and has
ruled the country without an elected parliament or constitution.
The Benghazi protest began Tuesday, triggered by the arrest of an activist
but quickly took on an anti-government tone, according to witnesses and
other activists. The protest was relatively small, but it signaled that
anti-government activists have been emboldened by uprisings elsewhere.
It started at the local security headquarters after troops raided the home
of rights advocate Fathi Tarbel and took him away, according to
Switzerland-based activist Fathi al-Warfali.
Tarbel was released after meeting with Libya's top security official
Abdullah al-Sanousi, but the protesters proceeded to march through the
coastal city to the main downtown plaza, al-Warfali said.
Protests renewed on Wednesday as the families of four other activists
still in custody, including author Idris al-Mesmari, marched on security
headquarters to demand their release, al-Warfali said, citing witnesses.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said a total of nine activists have been
arrested in Tripoli and Benghazi in an effort to prevent people from
joining the rallies called for Thursday. Those protests have been called
to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the killing of nine people
demonstrating in front of the Italian Consulate against a cartoon
depicting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
"This is a pre-emptive attempt to prevent peaceful protests on Feb. 17,"
the group's Heba Morayef said.
The online campaign calling for Thursday's rallies named the planned
protest "the revolution of al-Mokhtar," referring to Omar al-Mokhtar, the
leader of the Libyan resistance against Italy's military occupation in the
first half of the 20th century. Al-Mokhtar was executed in 1931.
Independent confirmation of Wednesday's protests in Benghazi was not
possible because the government tightly controls the media, but video
clips posted on the Internet showed protesters carrying signs and
chanting: "No God but Allah. Moammar is the enemy of Allah," and "Down,
down to corruption and to the corrupt."
Police and armed government backers quickly clamped down, firing rubber
bullets and dousing protesters with water cannons.
Another video with the same date showed people running away from gunfire
while shots are heard. A young man in a white, bloodstained robe was then
seen being carried by protesters.
A Libyan security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he
wasn't authorized to release the information, said 14 people, including 10
policemen, were injured. The official accused protesters of being armed
with knives and stones. Witnesses said the protests were peaceful but came
under attack from pro-Gadhafi men.
In the southern city of Zentan, 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of
Tripoli, hundreds of people marched through the streets and set fire to
security headquarters and a police station, then set up tents in the heart
of the town while chanting, "The people want the ouster of the regime,"
witnesses told al-Warfali.
Resentment against Gadhafi runs high in Zentan because many of the
detained army officers who took part in a failed coup in 1993 hail from
the city of 100,000 people.
In Beyida, to the east of Benghazi, hundreds of protesters torched police
stations while chanting, "people want the ouster of the regime," according
to Rabie al-Messrati, a 25-year-old protester. Al-Messrati said he was
arrested five days ago after spreading the call for the Feb. 17 protest.
He said he was released Tuesday and took part in Wednesday's
"All the people of Beyida are out in the streets," he said.
Another protester, Ahmed al-Husseini, said that he saw snipers on the roof
of the security headquarters opening fire on protesters, wounding at least
"This is my first time to stand up against injustice and oppression," he
said. "For 42 years I have not been able to speak up."
The protests came as security forces in Beyida rounded up a number of
activists while searching for Sheik Ahmed al-Dayekh, an outspoken cleric
who criticized Gadhafi and corruption in Libya during a Friday sermon.
The outbreak of protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran has
roiled the Middle East and brought unprecedented pressure on leaders like
Gadhafi who have held virtually unchecked power for decades.
It also has posed new challenges for the United States, which has
strategic interests in each of the countries. President Barack Obama
conceded Tuesday he is concerned about the region's stability and prodded
governments to get out ahead of the change.
Libya's official news agency did not carry any reports of the
anti-government protests. It reported only that supporters of Gadhafi
demonstrated Wednesday in the capital, Tripoli, as well as Benghazi and
Libyan TV showed video of 12 state-orchestrated rallies of government
employees, and students. The biggest was in Tripoli, where about 3,000
rallied in the streets, chanting: "Moammar is our leader. We don't want
anyone but him."
JANA, the official news agency, quoted a statement from the pro-Gadhafi
demonstrators as pledging to "defend the leader and the revolution." The
statement described the anti-government protesters as "cowards and
Meanwhile, the government freed 110 Islamic militants who were members of
a group plotting to overthrow Gadhafi, leaving only 30 members of the
group in prison.
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the leader's son, has orchestrated the release of
members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is suspected of having
links to al-Qaida, in the past as part of a reconciliation plan.
The government also proposed increasing the salaries of state workers by
Gadhafi, long reviled in the West, has been trying to bring his country
out of isolation, announcing in 2003 that he was abandoning his program
for weapons of mass destruction, renouncing terrorism and compensating
victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 bombing
of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Those decisions opened the door for warmer relations with the West and the
lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, but Gadhafi continues to face
allegations of human rights violations in the North African nation.
The activist's arrest followed the collapse of talks between the
government and a committee representing 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
compensation to families, but the committee is demanding prosecution of
Al-Warfali, the Switzerland-based activist, said the ultimate goal was to
oust the Gadhafi regime.
"These are old calls by the Libyan opposition in exile, but Egypt and
Tunisia have given us new momentum. They brought down the barrier of
fear," he said.
Associated Press writer Salah Nasrawi contributed to this report.