February 19, 2011
Cycle of Suppression Rises in Libya and Elsewhere
By ANTHONY SHADID
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Libyan security forces moved against protesters Saturday in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city and the epicenter of the most serious challenge to four decades of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule, opposition leaders and residents said. The death toll rose to at least 104 people, most of them in Benghazi, Human Rights Watch reported.
The events appeared to mark a decisive turn in four days of protests that have shaken Libya, a North African nation rich in oil. By nightfall, a deadly cycle had clearly emerged in a city where thousands have gathered in antigovernment demonstrations: Security forces fired on funeral marches, killing more protesters, creating more funerals.
The scope of the crackdown was almost impossible to verify in an isolated country that remains largely off limits to foreign journalists and, as part of the government’s efforts to squelch the protests, has been periodically cut off from the Internet. But doctors reached by Al Jazeera, an Arabic satellite channel, said dozens and perhaps hundreds were killed and wounded in the fighting, which persisted into the night. And a Benghazi resident who visited the hospital said by e-mail that 200 were dead and nearly 850 wounded; if confirmed, that would substantially raise the death toll by Human Rights Watch, which reported at least 20 people killed Saturday.
“It is too late for dialogue now,” said a Benghazi resident who has taken part in the demonstrations but refused to be named. “Too much blood has been shed. The more brutal the crackdown will be, the more determined the protesters will become.”
“We don’t trust the regime anymore,” he said in a phone interview.
The government response in Libya underlined an unintended consequence of the success of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where protests pouring into the streets day after day forced the departure of long-serving authoritarian leaders. In Libya, Yemen and Algeria, the governments have quickly resorted to violence to crush unrest before it gathers momentum that might threaten their grip on power.
A day of antigovernment marches in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, took a violent turn as government supporters opened fire on a group opposing the 31-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounding at least four people. And hundreds of police officers in the Algerian capital, Algiers, used clubs to overwhelm antigovernment demonstrators.
The crackdown in Libya has proven the bloodiest of the recent government actions, drawing criticism from the United States and European allies.
In London, Foreign Minister William Hague said he had reports that heavy weapons fire and sniper units were being used against protests, organized in a half-dozen cities or more. “This is clearly unacceptable and horrifying,” he said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, thousands had returned to the courthouse in Benghazi. Idris Ahmed al-Agha, a Libyan writer reached by telephone, said the crowd had grown to more than 20,000 by midday — an account confirmed by others — with many of the people there planning to take part in funeral marches to bury dozens of people killed a day before.
Opposition Web sites reported that security forces later fired on some of the mourners. One site, Al Manara, said snipers fired from an army base that sits on the route to the cemetery, and a video posted on a Facebook page that has compiled images from the protests showed a march coming under fire, with at least one man shot in the head. Doctors have said that most of the dead have suffered gunshots.
“It seems that security forces in Libya do not feel there are limits on how far they can go in suppressing protests,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Cairo who has been in contact with residents and doctors in Benghazi.
The government has viewed the situation in Benghazi as so precarious that Colonel Qaddafi sent his son, Saadi, to the eastern Libyan city last week in an attempt to mollify resentment, residents said. In a speech Wednesday, the son promised reform, but his overtures were seen as condescending, several said. His whereabouts were unclear on Saturday, with some saying he was holed up in a hotel in the city, where Colonel Qaddafi’s hold on power is not as strong as in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.
In Benghazi, protesters have echoed a chant heard in Tunisia, then picked up by protesters in Egypt: “The people want to topple the regime.”
One of the region’s wealthier countries, Libya has been spared the economic grievances that offered a cadence to protests against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Nor does Colonel Qaddafi seem to generate the loathing that President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali did in Tunisia. Though his rule has proven idiosyncratic and eccentric, he has a luxury not afforded neighboring Egypt: vast oil revenues and a small population.
But political grievances in places like Benghazi have deepened with the crackdown. Some accuse the state of deploying special forces and foreign mercenaries unable to speak Arabic to crush the protests, and the bloodshed — much of it inflicted on funeral marches — seems to have struck a chord of anger.
“They’re not going to go back to their homes,” said Issa Abed al-Majid Mansour, an exiled opposition leader in Oslo. “If they do, he’ll finish them off. They know the regime very well. There’s no to way to go back now. Never, never.”
The Libyan crackdown comes amid one of the most tumultuous moments in the Arab world in recent memory, with two longtime leaders falling in as many months and a series of Arab states facing defiant calls for change.
In the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, saved from much of the devastation visited on the rest of the country during the American-led war, a demonstration ended with gunfire for the second time in less than a week. Gunmen wearing civilian clothes fired on a group of students from the University of Sulaimaniya, wounding 12 people. Hundreds of students chanting antigovernment slogans had gathered on Saturday to demand the government apologize for the bloodshed at the earlier demonstration. The original protests were against local leaders in the semiautonomous area and echoed complaints across the region over the excessive power of long-ruling parties and corruption.
About 1,000 protesters demanding Mr. Saleh’s ouster in Yemen gathered for another day in Sana, squaring off against government supporters. Some protesters shouted, “Be peaceful!” but the calls were drowned out as the two sides hurled bottles, rocks and shoes at each other. Government supporters fired at protesters; one man, his chest bloodied, was carried away.
In Algiers, hundreds of baton-wielding police officers pushed back demonstrators, breaking up an antigovernment protest in the downtown. Thousands paraded peacefully through Tunis to demand the country adhere to secular traditions, in one of the largest protests since Mr. Ben Ali’s fall in January; since his ouster, many exiled Islamists have returned to the country, apparently raising concerns that that they would push for religion to play a greater role in politics. The government there also signed an amnesty decree that would free prisoners convicted on grounds of politics, security or activism.
The military government in Egypt took more steps toward a handover of power. State television reported that that within six months, the government would end the so-called emergency law which, for 30 years, has allowed detentions without charges or trial. The judge heading the effort to draft constitutional amendments said his panel might produce recommendations as early as Sunday, for a referendum in the coming weeks. And the government recognized the first new political party formed since the revolution, a moderate Islamist group that has sought recognition for 15 years.
Reporting was contributed by Mona El-Naggar and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo, Nada Bakri from Beirut, Adam Nossiter from Algiers, Laura Kasinof from Sana, Yemen, Jack Healy from Baghdad, Thomas Fuller from Tunis and John Markoff from San Francisco.