Gaddafi fights for his future as up to 200 die in Benghazi
Libya was approaching a “tipping point” last night as widespread protests against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime were met with increasing violence from security forces.
Dozens of protesters were reported killed by sniper fire from security forces in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, yesterday when violence flared again as crowds clashed after funerals for people killed in fighting on Friday. “Dozens were killed. We are in the midst of a massacre here,” one eyewitness reported.
Clashes were reported in the town of al-Bayda, where dozens of civilians were said to have been killed and police stations came under attack. In all, the death toll was reported to have reached 120. Doctors from Aj Jala hospital in Benghazi confirmed 1,000 people had been injured. (The Independent)
Reports of intense Benghazi violence
Benghazi, about 1,000 km (600 miles) from Tripoli, has been the main focus of the demonstrations against Col Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.
Troops opened fire on people attending a funeral there on Saturday, killing 15, both the Associated Press news agency and al-Jazeera television said.
But an eyewitness told Reuters news agency that many more had actually died.
“Dozens were killed… not 15, dozens,” the unnamed eyewitness said, adding that he had helped take victims to a local hospital.
A Benghazi resident told the BBC that security forces inside a government compound had fired on protesters with mortars and 14.5mm machine guns – a heavy machine gun typically produced in the former USSR.
They were, he said, machine-gunning cars and people indiscriminately. “A lot [of people] have fallen down today,” he added. (BBC)
Libyan protesters risk ‘suicide’ by army hands
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is confronting the most serious challenge to his 42-year rule as leader of Libya by unleashing his army on unarmed protesters.
Unlike the rulers of neighbouring Egypt, Gaddafi has refused to countenance the politics of disobedience, despite growing international condemnation, and the death toll of demonstrators nearing 100.
The pro-government Al-Zahf al-Akhdar newspaper warned that the government would “violently and thunderously respond” to the protests, and said those opposing the regime risked “suicide”.
William Hague, the UK’s foreign secretary, condemned the violence as “unacceptable and horrifying”, even as the Libyan regime’s special forces, backed by African mercenaries, launched a dawn attack on a protest camp in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Britain is scrambling to extricate itself from its recently cosy relationship with Gaddafi, initiated by then prime minister Tony Blair in 2004. That rapprochement saw Libya open its doors to British oil companies in exchange for becoming a new ally in the “war on terror” while Britain sold Gaddafi arms. (The Guardian)
Unrest encircles Saudis, stoking sense of unease
The Saudi and pan-Arab news media have been cautiously supportive of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, with a number of opinion articles welcoming the call for nonviolent change. That may change now that protests and violence have seized Bahrain, which lies just across a 15-mile causeway from the Saudi border. Bahrain is a far more threatening prospect, in part because of the sectarian dimensions of the protests. Bahrain’s restive population is mostly Shiite, and is adjacent to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, an important oil-producing area where the Shiite population has long complained of unfair treatment by the puritanical Saudi religious establishment. They feel a strong kinship with their co-religionists across the water.
“The Bahrain uprising may give more courage to the Shia in the Eastern Province to protest,” said one Saudi diplomat. “It might then escalate to the rest of the country.”
Most analysts say that is unlikely. Although Saudi Arabia shares many of the conditions that bred the democracy uprisings — including autocracy, corruption and a large population of educated young people without access to suitable jobs — its people are cushioned by oil wealth and culturally resistant to change.
Moreover, analysts tend to agree that Saudi Arabia would never allow the Bahraini monarchy to be overthrown. Ever since Bahrain began a harsh crackdown on protesters on Thursday, rumors have flown that Saudi Arabia provided military support or guidance; however, there is no evidence to support that. In recent days, the deputy governor of the Eastern Province, Saud bin Jalawi, spoke to Shiite religious leaders and urged them to suppress any rebellious sentiment, according to Saudi news media reports.
“Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. “It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.” (New York Times)
How Mideast autocrats win friends and influence people in Washington
Shortly after 20 Shiite opposition leaders, including clerics and human rights activists, were arrested on the eve of elections in Bahrain last September, U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked about the situation, including allegations of police torture, “given the close relations between Bahrain and the United States.”
Crowley responded, “We are in touch with Bahraini authorities and have expressed our concern. At the same time, we have confidence as Bahrain evolves that you don’t have to make a choice between security and democracy, and that this is the message that we’re sending to the government.”
When asked whether the State Department believes Bahraini government claims that those opposition figures were plotting a coup against the royal family, Crowley dismissed the allegation, saying, “I don’t know that we’re aware of any information along those lines…”
Bahrain’s state media covered the same press briefing with a slightly altered response from Crowley. Their headline read, “America: Bahrain evolves in security and democracy,” with an accompanying story reporting the “spokesman stressed that the United States has confidence that Bahrain is evolving in the fields of development, security and democracy.”
Control of the state media is not the only way the oil-rich island kingdom polishes its reputation. A month before the arrests, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying firms began working for Bahrain.
Qorivs, a lobbying and public relations giant with a roster of high-profile clients from Intel and the Washington Post to Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea, began work under a subcontract with Britain’s Bell Pottinger. Among its goals: to position Bahrain as a key ally in the war on terror and as an advocate for peace in the Middle East. As part of its work, Qorvis pitched major media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, reports O’Dwyer’s PR Daily. (Huffington Post)