In These New Times

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Libyan protesters celebrate in Benghazi, carnage in capital

Posted by seumasach on February 22, 2011

Today’s Zaman

22nd February, 2011

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. Dozens of people were reported killed.

 

Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil has resigned over “the excessive use of violence against government protesters,” Libya’s privately-owned Quryna newspaper reported. The newspaper said on its Internet site it had spoken to the minister by telephone. There was no immediate official confirmation of the resignation.

The newspaper also reported that anti-government protests have broken out in the Libyan town of Ras Lanuf, the site of an oil refinery and petrochemical complex. The paper, citing employees at the facility, said special committees of workers and local residents were being set up to try to protect it from damage.

Muammar Gaddafi’s son vowed that his father and security forces would fight “until the last bullet.” Even as Seif al-Islam Gaddafi spoke on state TV Sunday night, clashes were raging in and around Tripoli’s central Green Square, lasting until dawn on Monday, witnesses said. They reported snipers opening fire on crowds trying to seize the square, and Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi’s rule. Gaddafi’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. Seif al-Islam Gaddafi warned of civil war in Libya if protests continue, a theme continued Monday on Libyan state TV, where a pro-regime commentator spoke of chaos and “rivers of blood” turning Libya into “another Somalia” if security is not restored.

Deep tribal divisions

Fragmentation is a real danger in Libya, a country of deep tribal divisions and a historic rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi. The Arab world’s longest ruling leader in power for nearly 42 years, Muammar Gaddafi has held an unquestioned grip over the highly decentralized system of government he created, called the “Jamahiriya,” or “rule by masses.”

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 on Monday amid investor concern.

Two leading oil companies, Statoil and BP, said they were pulling some employees out of Libya or preparing to do so. Portugal sent plane to pick up its citizens and other EU nationals and Turkey sent two ferries to pick up construction workers stranded in the unrest-hit country. EU foreign ministers were discussing on Monday the possible evacuation of European citizens. Mobs attacked South Korean, Turkish and Serbian construction workers at various sites around the country, officials from each country said.

In Libya, 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. Most witnesses and residents spoke on condition they be indentified by first name only or not at all, 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 on 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 Muammar Gaddafi to power, according to witnesses and video footage posted on the Internet. Benghazi’s airport was closed, according to an airport official in Cairo.

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. “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. 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 headquarters.

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 were set up in the streets to treat the wounded.

 

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