Monday, February 21, 2011

Libya: Protesters, security clash in capital

a scene from recent days' unrest in Benghazi, Libya.
The graffiti in Arabic reads 'Down with Gadhafi and the regime'

By MAGGIE MICHAEL and HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press Feb. 21, 2011
CAIRO – Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi on Monday,
claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody
fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in
Tripoli's main square for the first time. Moammar Gadhafi's son vowed that
his father and security forces would fight "until the last bullet."

Even as Seif al-Islam Gadhafi spoke on state TV Sunday night, clashes were
raging in and around Tripoli's central Green Square, lasting until dawn
Monday, witnesses said. They reported snipers opening fire on crowds
trying to seize the square, and Gadhafi supporters speeding through in
vehicles, shooting and running over protesters. Before dawn, protesters
took over the offices of two of the multiple state-run satellite news
channels, witnesses said.

After daybreak Monday, smoke was rising from two sites in Tripoli where a
police station and a security forces bases are located, said Rehab, a
lawyer watching from the roof of her home.

The city on Monday was shut down and streets empty, with schools,
government offices and most shops closed except a few bakeries serving
residents hunkered down in their houses, she said, speaking on condition
she be identified only by her first name.

The protests and violence were the heaviest yet in the capital of 2
million people, a sign of how unrest was spreading after six days of
demonstrations in eastern cities demanding the end of the elder Gadhafi's

Gadhafi's regime has unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country
against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled the
leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. More than 200 have been killed in Libya,
according to medical officials, human rights groups and exiled dissidents.

The spiraling turmoil in Libya, an OPEC country that is a significant oil
supplier to Europe, was raising international alarm. Oil prices jumped
$1.67 to nearly $88 a barrel Monday amid investor concern over the

EU foreign ministers said on Monday they will prepare for the possible
evacuation of European citizens from Libya. European firms have taken the
lead in developing Libya's oil industry. About 500 Libyans attacked a
South Korean-run construction site near Tripoli on Monday, triggering a
clash that left five people injured, Seoul's Foreign Ministry said.

The Internet has been largely shut down, residents can no longer make
international calls from land lines and journalists cannot work freely,
but eyewitness reports trickling out of the country suggested that
protesters were fighting back more forcefully against the Middle East's
longest-serving leader. Most witnesses and residents spoke on condition of
anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

In Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, protesters were in control of
the streets Monday and swarmed over the main security headquarters,
looting weapons, after bloody clashes Sunday that killed at least 60
people, according to a doctor at the main hospital.

Cars honked their horns in celebration and protesters in the streets
chanted "Long live Libya." Protesters took down the Libyan flag from above
Benghazi's main courthouse and raised the flag of the country's old
monarchy, which was toppled in 1969 by the military coup that brought
Moammar Gadhafi to power, according to witnesses and video footage posted
on the Internet.

A Turkish Airlines flight trying to land in Benghazi on Monday was turned
away, told by ground control to circle over the airport then to return to

There were fears of chaos as young men — including regime supporters —
seized weapons from captured security buildings. "The youths now have arms
and that's worrying," said Iman, a doctor at the main hospital who also
asked that her last name not be used. "We are appealing to the wise men of
every neighborhood to rein in the youths."

Youth volunteers were directing traffic and guarding homes and public
facilities, said Najla, a lawyer and university lecturer in Benghazi, who
spoke on condition she be identified only by her first name. She and other
residents said police had disappeared from the streets.

Benghazi has seen a cycle of bloody clashes over the past week, as
security forces kill protesters, followed by funerals that turn into new
protests, sparking new bloody shootings. After funerals Sunday, protesters
fanned out, burning government buildings and police stations and besieging
the large compound known as the Katiba, the city's main security

Security forces battled back, at times using heavy-caliber machine guns
and anti-aircraft guns, according to residents. One witness said she saw
bodies torn apart and that makeshift clinics had been set up in the
streets to treat the wounded because hospitals were overwhelmed. Ahmed
Hassan, a doctor at the main Al-Jalaa hospital, said funerals were
expected Monday for 20 of those killed the day before, but that families
of 40 others were still trying to identify their loved ones because their
bodies were too damaged.

In some cases, army units reportedly turned against security forces and
pro-Gadhafi militias to side with the protesters. Mohamed Abdul-Rahman, a
42-year-old Benghazi merchant, said he saw an army battalion chasing
militiamen from a security compound.

Protesters took over the Katiba, and weapons stores were looted, many
residents said. Inside the Katiba compound, protesters found the bodies of
13 uniformed security officers who had been handcuffed and shot in the
head, then set on fire, said Hassan, the doctor. He said protesters
believed the 13 had been executed by fellow security forces for refusing
to attack protesters.

Protest leaders and army units that sided with them were working to keep
order in the streets Monday, directing traffic and guarding homes and
official buildings, several residents said.

One fear was of regime supporters causing chaos. Amal Roqaqie, a lawyer at
Benghazi Court, said that at dawn, wheat storage buildings were set on
fire, though protesters were able to control the blaze. She blamed Gadhafi
supporters, saying "they want to starve the people and to intimidate

On Sunday night, Gadhafi's son Seif el-Islam took to state TV, trying to
take a tough line in a rambling and sometimes confused speech of nearly 40

"We are not Tunisia and Egypt," he said. "Moammar Gadhafi, our leader, is
leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him."

"The armed forces are with him. Tens of thousands are heading here to be
with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last
bullet," he said.

He warned the protesters that they risked igniting a civil war in which
Libya's oil wealth "will be burned." He also promised "historic" reforms
in Libya if protests stop.

Seif has often been put forward as the regime's face of reform. Several of
the elder Gadhafi's sons have powerful positions in the regime and in past
years have competed for influence. Seif's younger brother Mutassim is the
national security adviser, with a strong role in the military and security
forces, and another brother Khamis heads the army's 32nd Brigade, which
according to U.S. diplomats is the best trained and best equipped force in
the military.

Even as Seif spoke, major clashes had broken out for the first time in

Sunday afternoon, protesters from various parts of the city began to
stream toward central Green Square, chanting "God is great," said one
28-year-old man who was among the marchers.

In the square, they found groups of Gadhafi supporters, but the larger
number of protesters appeared to be taking over the square and surrounding
streets, he and two other witnesses said. That was when the backlash
began, with snipers firing down from rooftops and militiamen attacking the
crowds, shooting and chasing people down side streets. they said.

"We saw civilian cars with Gadhafi pictures, they started to look for the
protesters, to either run over them or open fire with automatic weapons,"
said the 28-year-old, reached by telephone. "They were driving like mad
men searching for someone to kill. ... It was total chaos, shooting and

The witnesses reported seeing casualties, but the number could not be
confirmed. One witness, named Fathi, said he saw at least two he believed
were dead and many more wounded. "I could still hear gunfire after 5 a.m.
this morning," he said.

After midnight, protesters took over the main Tripoli offices of two
state-run satellite stations, Al-Jamahiriya-1 and Al-Shebabiya, one
witness said.

On Monday, state TV sought to give an air of normalcy, reporting that
Moammar Gadhafi received telephone calls of support from the presidents of
Nicaragua and Mali. It showed footage of a crowd of Libyans said to be
from the town of Zeltein chanting their support for Gadhafi in a
conference hall. Gadhafi, in flowing black and brown robes, waved to the
crowd with both hands. It was not clear when the scene was taking place.

In other setbacks for Gadhafi's regime, a major tribe in Libya — the
Warfla — was reported to have turned against him and announced it was
joining the protests against him, said Switzerland-based Libyan exile
Fathi al-Warfali. Although it had long-standing animosity toward the
Libyan leader, it had been neutral for most of the past two decades.
Libya's representative to the Arab League said he resigned his post to
protest the government's decision to fire on defiant demonstrators in

Khaled Abu Bakr, a resident of Sabratha, an ancient Roman city to the west
of Tripoli, said protesters besieged the local security headquarters,
driving out police and setting it on fire. Abu Bakr said residents are in
charge, have set up neighborhood committees to secure their city.

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