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21/02/2011 | Libya protesters seize streets, Bahrain mood eases

Reuters Staff

Libyans protesting against Muammar Gaddafi's rule appeared to control the streets of Benghazi on Sunday, even though the security forces have killed scores in the bloodiest of multiple revolts now rocking the Arab world.

 

Witnesses said Libya's second city was in chaos, with government buildings ransacked and troops and police forced to retreat to a fortified compound, from where they picked off demonstrators with sniper and heavy-weapons fire.

"The security forces are in their barracks and the city is in a state of civil mutiny," one witness told Reuters.

In the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, thousands of mainly Shi'ite protesters gathered in a square in the capital Manama, some calling for political change and others hoping for talks with the island's Sunni rulers.

The main opposition party said, however, that it wanted the crown prince to show signs of addressing opposition demands before any formal dialogue could start.

In Iran, thousands of security personnel were deployed on the streets of Tehran and other cities to prevent protesters rallying in spite of a ban, opposition websites said.

Unrest also hit Yemen, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Algeria and Djibouti over the weekend as people took to the streets demanding political and economic change.

The clamour for reform across a region of huge strategic importance to the West and the source of much of its oil began in Tunisia in December. The overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali then inspired Egyptians to rise up against strongman Hosni Mubarak, overthrowing him on February 11.

The tide has challenged Arab leaders, including many who have long been backed by the West as vital energy suppliers and enemies of Islamist militants. While each uprising has its own dynamics, from religion to tribalism, all protesters seem united by frustration over economic hardship and a lack of political freedom under entrenched elites.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Bahraini government should step up reform efforts rather than attacking peaceful protesters.

"We've been very clear from the beginning that we do not want to see any violence. We deplore it. We think it is absolutely unacceptable," Clinton told the ABC News programme This Week, according to a transcript released by the network.

BLOODSHED IN BENGHAZI

In Libya, Gaddafi responded to the biggest challenge of his four decades in power with ruthless force. New York-based Human Rights Watch said security forces had shot dead at least 170 people, mostly in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi. At least 20 of them were killed overnight after the security forces fired heavy weapons at civilians from a fortified compound.

The situation there was confused as the government has restricted media access and communications have been patchy.

From conflicting accounts given over poor phone lines, it appeared the streets were under the control of protesters while security forces had pulled back to the compound, known as the Command Centre, from where they shot at people.

One witness said many police and soldiers had joined protesters.

"Right now, the only military presence in Benghazi is confined to the Command Centre Complex in the city. The rest of the city is liberated," said another witness.

Local government offices and police stations had been torched, the witnesses said. As on previous days, thousands of people gathered near the northern Benghazi courthouse on Sunday chanting: "We want to bring down the regime...Allahu Akbar!"

Benghazi and the surrounding area have been the focus of the unrest. But posts on social network sites, which could not be verified, referred to minor clashes in the capital Tripoli and overnight gunfire in Nalut to the west.

But Libya watchers said an Egyptian-style nationwide revolt was unlikely as regional grievances were a factor in the unrest.

Gaddafi has less support in the east but is respected by many Libyans despite the absence of Western-style democracy. And Libya's oil wealth allows him to spread largesse to smooth over social problems.

Gaddafi has long been reviled by Western governments, although commercial ties have helped to improve relations in recent years.

Libya has told the European Union it will stop cooperation with the bloc in stemming illegal migration to Europe if the EU encourages the protests, the Hungarian EU presidency said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Libya to begin dialogue with the protesters and implement reforms, in a phone call to Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.

BAHRAIN CONCILIATORY NOISES

In Bahrain, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, of the ruling Sunni Muslim dynasty made conciliatory noises after the violence in which six people died.

"All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table," he told CNN. "I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of sadness...We are terribly sorry and this is a terrible tragedy for our nation," said the prince, who is seen as a reformist.

But Ibrahim Mattar, a lawmaker of the main opposition Wefaq party, said that they wanted the crown prince to show signs of addressing their demands before any formal dialogue could start.

"We are waiting for an initiative from him, with a scope for dialogue," he said, adding that the prince should "send a small signal he is willing to have a constitutional monarchy."

The opposition is demanding a constitutional monarchy that gives citizens a greater role in a directly elected government. It also wants the release of political prisoners.

On the crown prince's orders, troops and armoured vehicles left Pearl Square on Saturday, which they had occupied after a police attack on protesters who set up a tent city there.

"I came here to prove we are united," said May Hadi, a 27-year-old Sunni woman. "Bahrain television is trying to show we are divided. We are not. They are trying to prove it is a Shi'ite revolution. We are asking for freedom in this country."

Speculation was growing that Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa -- ensconced in office since independence from Britain in 1971 -- would be replaced by the crown prince, who has pushed aside for now the hawks in the royal court and is emerging as a leading player among the ruling elite.

Shi'ites have long complained of unfair treatment in Bahrain, an ally of the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based there.

In Tunisia on Sunday, security forces fired into the air as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered downtown to call for the replacement of the interim government -- a sign that problems are not all swept away with the removal of a dictator.

In Yemen, the leader of the secessionist Southern Movement was arrested and shots were fired at a demonstration in the capital Sanaa on the ninth consecutive day of unrest.

Thousands of people also staged sit-ins in other cities, demanding the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who renewed his call for the opposition to pursue a dialogue.

But the coalition of main opposition parties said there could be no dialogue with "bullets and sticks and thuggery", or with a government "which gathers mercenaries to occupy public squares ... and terrorise people".

At least 2,000 protesters gathered in a square in Morocco's capital on Sunday to demand that King Mohammed give up some of his powers and clamp down on government corruption.

**Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Diana Abdallah; editing by Mark Trevelyan

Reuters (Estados Unidos)

 


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