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Scores reported dead in new crackdown on protests

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-02-20

Scores of protesters were killed on Sunday after new clashes erupted between anti-regime protesters and security forces in the Libyan city of Benghazi amid reports that the unrest had made its way to the capital, Tripoli.


REUTERS - Security forces shot dead scores of protesters in Libya's second largest city, where residents said a military unit had joined their cause on Sunday, and there were reports of disturbances reaching the capital.
In one of the bloodiest episodes yet in two months of unrest convulsing the Arab world, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has attempted to put down protests against his four-decade rule, centred on the eastern city of Benghazi.
An employee at a luxury hotel in central Tripoli said "disturbances" could be heard in the capital as well.
"We haven't had such disturbances before," he said.
Al Jazeera reported clashes in Tripoli's Green Square between thousands of protesters and Gaddafi supporters. No confirmation was available.
Unrest spreading to Tripoli would be an important development as demonstrations until now have been mostly confined to the east of the country where Gaddafi's grip is weaker.
According to residents reached by telephone in Benghazi, off limits to foreign journalists, tens -- perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of protesters took to the streets and appeared to be in control of the city before security forces opened fire.
Habib al-Obaidi, who heads the intensive care unit at the main Al-Jalae hospital, said the dead bodies of 50 people, mostly killed by gunshots, had been brought there late on Sunday afternoon. The deaths came after scores were killed on Saturday.
Two hundred people had arrived wounded, 100 of them in serious condition, he said.
Members of a unit known as the "Thunderbolt" squad had come to the hospital carrying wounded comrades, he said. The soldiers said they had defected to the cause of the protesters and had fought and defeated Gaddafi's elite guards.
‘People’s revolt’
"They are now saying that they have overpowered the Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people's revolt," another man at the hospital who heard the soldiers, lawyer Mohamed al-Mana, told Reuters by telephone.
Communications are tightly controlled and Benghazi is not accessible to international journalists, but the picture that has emerged is of a city slipping from the grasp of security forces in the biggest challenge to Gaddafi's rule since the "brotherly leader" seized power in a 1969 military coup.
Sunday's violence took place after residents took to the streets in their thousands to bury scores of dead killed in the previous 24 hours. The United States said it was "gravely concerned" by what it called credible reports hundreds of people had been injured or killed.
"Libyan officials have stated their commitment to protecting and safeguarding the right of peaceful protest. We call upon the Libyan government to uphold that commitment and hold accountable any security officer who does not act in accordance with that commitment," said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.
 In a rare sign of dissent, Libya's representative to the Arab League quit in protest over "oppression against protesters", Al Jazeera television reported.
Human Rights Watch said 84 people were killed in Benghazi on Saturday, bringing the death toll in four days of clashes mainly in the country's east to 173 -- before Sunday's fresh violence.
"A massacre took place here last night," one resident, who did not want to be named, told Reuters by telephone on Sunday.
A leading tribal figure who requested anonymity said security forces, mainly confined to a compound, had been venturing out of their barracks and shooting protesters in the street in "cat and mouse chases".
Clashes were taking place on a road leading to a cemetery where thousands had gone to bury the dead. "The situation is very tense and scattered fires have erupted in revolutionary committee headquarters and other buildings," he said.
‘Dozens of martyrs’
Piecemeal accounts suggested the streets of Benghazi, about 1000 km (600 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, were largely controlled by anti-government protesters, under periodic attack from security forces who fired from their high-walled compound.
A resident said some 100,000 protesters had headed on Sunday for the cemetery "to bury dozens of martyrs" killed on Saturday.
Another witness told Reuters thousands of people had performed ritual prayers in front of 60 bodies laid out in the city. Women and children were among a crowd of hundreds of thousands that had come out onto the Mediterranean seafront and the area surrounding the port, he said.
"The protesters are here until the regime falls," he said.
The Libyan government has not released any casualty figures. A text message sent to mobile phone subscribers on Sunday said protesters in the east were trying to split the country.
"The deaths in Benghazi and Al Bayda (a nearby town), on both sides, were the result of attacks on weapons stores to use in terrorising people and killing innocents," it said. "All Libyan sons, we have to all stand up to stop the cycle of separation and sedition and destruction of our beloved Libya."
A senior Libyan security source said a group believed to be criminals had launched an attack on the Benghazi municipal building, blew it up, seized rifles and fired randomly in order to create an opportunity to escape.
Following a pattern set in Egypt, the government has disrupted the Internet, used by protesters to organise.
Al Jazeera, the Arabic television station whose coverage has played a big role in protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa, said some of its satellite transmissions across the region had been jammed. The Lebanese telecoms minister said the jamming appeared to come from Libya.
‘Stop the massacre now’
The crackdown prompted about 50 Libyan Muslim religious leaders to issue an appeal, sent to Reuters, for the security forces, as Muslims, to stop the killing.
"We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognise that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion (peace be upon him) ... Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!" the appeal said.
Libya is a major energy producer with significant investment from Britain's BP Plc, Exxon of the United States and Italy's ENI among others.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Libya to begin dialogue with anti-government protesters and implement reforms, in a phone call to a son of Gaddafi on Sunday.
In Brussels, the Hungarian EU presidency said Libya had told the European Union it would stop cooperation with the bloc in stemming illegal migration to Europe if the EU encourages pro-democracy protests in the country.


Date created : 2011-02-20


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