Violent protests rock Libyan city of Benghazi

Anti-government protests gripped Libya’s second-largest city of Benghazi overnight Tuesday in an unprecedented display of dissent in the tightly controlled, oil-rich North African nation. Medical officials said 38 people were injured in the clashes.


Situated between Tunisia and Egypt and ruled for 41 years by an absolute dictator who has no official status, Libya was the latest scene of protests overnight Tuesday when demonstrators in the country’s second-largest city took to the streets, clashing with police officials, according to witnesses and opposition groups.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in the port city of Benghazi in a rare show of discontent in the North African nation that has been tightly controlled by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The Benghazi-based, privately-owned Quryna newspaper, quoted Abdelkrim Gubaili, the director of a local hospital, as saying 38 people were injured in the clashes, most of them security officials. They had all since been discharged from the hospital, he added.


In an interview with FRANCE 24 Wednesday, Abdulla Darrat - a US-based Libyan exile who is a spokesman for Khalas!, an opposition Web site also known by its the English translation Enough! – said the protests were sparked by the arrest of a Libyan human rights activist.

The activist, Fethi Tarbel, is known for his work with families of the victims of a 1996 massacre at the notorious Abu Salim prison where more than a 1,000 prisoners were believed to have been executed.

“The protests, which began by demanding Fethi Tarbel’s release, quickly dissolved into an anti-Gaddafi protest,” said Darrat. “It seems that the momentum of the protests in Benghazi has carried on to other towns.”

A major port city that is home to a number of nationalized energy companies in the oil-rich nation, Benghazi has a history of distrust for Gaddafi. But there were no immediate signs of the protests moving to the capital of Tripoli.

“The real question is whether the unrest in Benghazi will be able to contaminate another important city, Tripoli," said Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva.

The prospect was still unclear, Abidi added, especially since "the repression was very tough last night, and this regime does not hesitate to fire into crowds, to imprison and even torture people."

In a possible concession to the protesters, an unnamed human rights activist told Reuters that 110 members of banned militant group the Libyan Islamic Fighting group were to be released from the Abu Salim prison.

YouTube video, state TV show pro-government demonstrations

Amateur footage posted on the video-sharing site YouTube showed protesters holding signs and chanting anti-government slogans overnight Tuesday outside the security headquarters in Benghazi. Witnesses said the demonstration then moved to four other sites in the city. 

Security officials, apparently caught by surprise, used water cannons on the crowd and witnesses said security officials were driving their cars into the crowd at high speeds. Eyewitness reports are hard to confirm in the hermetically sealed North African nation that has been administered under a quixotic ideological mix of socialism and Islam known as “Jamahiriya” since Gaddafi’s 1969 coup.

Unconfirmed YouTube footage from Tuesday morning shows protesters gathering outside a Benghazi police station when panic sweeps the crowd and gunshots are heard.

In a phone interview with Reuters, a Benghazi resident who declined to be named said the situation last night “was bad”. But he added that the city had calmed down Wednesday morning.

Libyan state television did not air footage of anti-government demonstrations Wednesday. The state broadcaster instead aired footage of a pro-government demonstration in Tripoli early Wednesday, where participants chanted slogans against Al Jazeera, the pan-Arabic satellite TV station that has extensively covered the uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.

Taking a page out of successful protest movements in Egypt and Tunisia, Libyan opposition groups are using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to call for a day of protests Thursday.


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