HUNDREDS OF Libyans demanding the ousting of the 41-year-old regime of Col Muammar Gadafy have clashed with security forces firing rubber bullets and water cannon in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city.
The unrest, which began on Tuesday and continued until early yesterday, was unprecedented in the north African country where dissidents have clearly been emboldened by the uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.
The 400-500 demonstrators called for the resignation of Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi but initially hesitated to demand the removal of Col Gadafy.
As the night wore on, however, they were reported to have raised the slogans, “No God but Allah, Muammar is the enemy of Allah” and “Down, down to corruption and to the corrupt.” At least 38 people, including 10 policemen, were reported injured.
Demonstrators were said to be armed with knives, petrol bombs and stones.
The Benghazi protests were sparked by the arrest on Tuesday of human rights lawyer Fathi Tarbel, who was released after a meeting with a senior security official. Mr Tarbel’s detention followed the collapse of talks between the government and a committee representing families of 1,000 inmates killed when security forces opened fire during 1996 riots in the Abu Salim prison, known for inhumane conditions.
While the government has begun to pay compensation to families, the committee has demanded prosecution of officials who ordered guards to use force to subdue the prisoners. The dead were buried in a mass grave outside the prison, deepening resentment of relatives.
Before the clashes, the authorities had announced that 110 members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group held in Abu Salim were due to be freed yesterday. But there has been no confirmation of the releases which were part of a programme to gradually free members of this group. Two hundred and fifty have been set free since last March.
In response to the anti-government demonstrations in Benghazi, state-run television broadcast footage of pro-regime rallies staged in Tripoli, the capital; Benghazi; and other cities. “Tell al-Jazeera [the Qatari satellite television channel] we want no one else but our leader,” regime loyalists chanted.
The country’s official news agency described anti-government protesters as “cowards and traitors”. Activists using Facebook and Twitter have called for country-wide demonstrations today to demand Gadafy’s ousting, political reforms and the adoption of a constitution. The protests, dubbed a “day of rage,” have been called to commemorate the deaths of 14 protesters at a 2006 fundamentalist rally in Benghazi.
“Pressure from the street is big. In Libya, the same will happen as in Tunisia and Egypt,” stated Abdulhamid Salim al-Haasi, spokesman for the London-based National Conference of the Libyan Opposition.
The government has declared a public holiday and cancelled football matches with the aim of discouraging large groups of people from assembling.
In response to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the regime has reduced food prices and announced massive investment in social welfare programmes.
While the standard of living is higher in oil-rich Libya than in either of its neighbours, its people also face high unemployment, particularly among youth, in addition to rampant corruption and repression.