Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Police reportedly fired tear gas and water cannons at hundreds of anti-government protesters in Libya's second-largest city on Wednesday as unrest continued to spread across the Middle East and Northern Africa, threatening yet another decades-old authoritarian regime.
The accounts of violence from witnesses and Libyan news reports came as protesters in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain gathered for a third day in the capital to demand political reforms. Protests in Yemen, Iran and Algeria have also brought unprecedented pressure on authoritarian governments in those countries on the heels of Egypt's successful revolt.
The Libyan demonstration in the port city of Benghazi began Tuesday and lasted until the early hours Wednesday, according to eyewitnesses and Ashur Shamis, a Libyan opposition activist in London.
Witnesses said protesters chanted "Down, down to corruption and to the corrupt" and hurled epithets at the country's leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Police quickly moved in to break up the protests, firing rubber bullets, Shamis said.
The independent Tripoli-based newspaper Quryna reported that demonstrators marched on a local government office, some wielding rocks and gasoline bombs as they demanded the release of a human rights activist and regime critic. The paper said more than a dozen people were injured.
There was no independent confirmation of what happened.
Libya's official news agency did not report the anti-government protests, but said that supporters of Gadhafi were staging demonstrations Wednesday in the capital, Tripoli, as well as Benghazi and other cities.
Police Pull Back After Bloodshed In Bahrain
The seething anger directed against Gadhafi, who has held power in the North African nation for more than 40 years, marked the latest unrest inspired by movements in Egypt and Tunisia that swept those countries' autocratic leaders from office in little more than a month.
In the Bahraini capital, Manama, NPR's Peter Kenyon reported that Wednesday's protests were peaceful a day after an attack by police killed a man attending a funeral procession for another protester who died at the hands of security forces.
At Pearl Square, a traffic circle and monument in the heart of the capital, thousands gathered for a third day in an Egypt-style occupation, pitching tents and making ready for a long stay to press their demands for political reforms in the island nation.
One demonstrator used a bullhorn to urge protesters to remain put until their demands are met.
Kenyon said the police had seemed to back off after the second person was killed on Tuesday. "They realized that the more clashes there were, the more risk of people being killed, the more galvanized the protesters were becoming and the more determined," he said.
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa appeared on national television Tuesday to apologize for the deaths of the two protesters and to promise reforms.
The protests in Bahrain began Monday as a cry for the country's Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip on public freedoms and open more opportunities for the country's majority Shiites, who have long complained of being blocked from decision-making roles.
But the opposition's demands have steadily increased. Many protesters are calling for the government to provide more jobs and better housing and free all political detainees.
"Ultimately what these people would like is to turn Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy ... devolve a lot of power away from the king, making it something along the lines of what Britain has," Kenyon said.
Students Blocked From Joining Yemen Rallies
In Yemen, some 2,000 policemen, including plainclothes officers, fired in the air and blocked thousands of students at Sanaa University from joining thousands of other protesters elsewhere in the capital during a sixth day of demonstrations.
Much like in Egypt, Yemeni opposition leaders used social media to spread the word and help organize anti-government rallies. A call put out on Facebook and Twitter urged people to take part in "one million people" rallies to be held in various cities during a "day of rage."
President Ali Abdullah Saleh has tried to defuse protesters' anger by declaring that he will not seek re-election in 2013 and will not attempt to maneuver his son into position to succeed him.
Nonetheless, protesters chanted slogans against the president's son, Ahmed, on Wednesday. Witnesses said police chained the university's iron gates in order to prevent students from pouring into adjacent streets. They also said at least four protesters were wounded in scuffles with police.
Other demonstrations unfolded in the Yemeni port city of Aden and in Taaz, where thousands of protesters shouted, "Down ... down with Ali Abdullah Saleh!"
Iranian Opposition Leaders Swear To 'Pay Any Price'
Meanwhile, opposition leaders in Iran — who turned out tens of thousands of their ranks for street protests on Monday — vowed to "pay any price" in pursuit of democratic change after hard-line lawmakers called for them to be tried and executed.
"I declare that I am not afraid of any threat," pro-reform leader Mahdi Karroubi said. Karroubi has been effectively under house arrest since he first called for the demonstrations earlier this month.
"As I've demonstrated in serving the nation as a soldier [political activist] since 1962, I am ready to pay any price in this graceful path," he said.
Violence Amid Scattered Protests In Iraq
Small groups of Iraqis, taking their cue from Egypt and Tunisia, have been protesting nearly every day over unemployment, corruption and a lack of services. However, the sporadic demonstrations were unlikely to coalesce into a single, unified movement.
At least one protester was killed and dozens wounded during a rally Wednesday in the southern city of Kut. Officials said security guards opened fire after protesters set government offices ablaze as they demanded the local governor's resignation over a lack of basic services such as electricity and clean water.
Iraq's recently elected officials have been making daily promises to improve the lives of their constituents, but opposition groups have vowed that the anti-government displays will continue.
Analysts said they doubt that the protests will evolve into a nationwide movement, primarily because Iraq already is rid of one dictator: Saddam Hussein.
With reporting from NPR's Peter Kenyon in Manama, Bahrain; Eric Westervelt in Cairo; and Kelly McEvers in Baghdad. This story also contains material from The Associated Press.