Unrest spreads to Libya; police cracking down
Militants freed, raises proposed to quell unrest
CAIRO — Egypt-inspired unrest spread yesterday against Moammar Khadafy, Libya’s longtime ruler, with riot police clashing with demonstrators in the city of Benghazi and marchers setting fire to security headquarters and a police station in the city of Zentan, witnesses said.
The government freed 110 Islamic militants who were members of a group plotting to overthrow Khadafy, leaving only 30 members of the group in prison.
Seif al-Islam Khadafy, the leader’s son, orchestrated the release of members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is suspected of having links to Al Qaeda in the past, as part of a reconciliation plan.
The government also proposed increasing the salaries of state workers by 100 percent.
Activists using Facebook and Twitter have called for nationwide demonstrations today to demand the ouster of Khadafy, the establishment of a constitution, and comprehensive political and economic reforms
Khadafy came to power in 1969 through a military coup and has ruled the country without an elected parliament or constitution.
Libya’s official news agency did not carry any reports of the antigovernment protests yesterday. It reported only that supporters of Gadhafi Khadafy demonstrated in the capital, Tripoli, as well as in Benghazi and other cities.
Libyan TV showed video of 12 state-orchestrated rallies of government employees and students. The biggest was in Tripoli, where about 3,000 rallied in the streets, chanting: “Moammar is our leader. We don’t want anyone but him.’’
JANA, the official news agency, quoted a statement from the pro-Khadafy demonstrators as pledging to defend the leader and the revolution. The statement described the antigovernment protesters as cowards and traitors.
The Benghazi protest began Tuesday and lasted until around 4 a.m. yesterday. It was triggered by the arrest of an activist but quickly took on an antigovernment tone, according to witnesses and other activists.
The protest was relatively small, but it signaled that antigovernment activists have been emboldened by uprisings elsewhere.
It started at the local security headquarters after troops raided the home of rights advocate Fathi Tarbel and took him away, according to activist Fathi al-Warfali of Switzerland.
Tarbel was released after meeting with security official Abdullah al-Sanousi, but the protesters proceeded to march through the coastal city to the main downtown plaza, he said.
Families of other prisoners marched to security headquarters to protest the detention of Tarbel and another activist, writer Idris al-Mesmari, who remained in jail, Warfali reported, citing witnesses.
Human Rights Watch of New York said nine activists have been arrested in Tripoli and Benghazi in an effort to prevent people from joining today’s rallies. Those protests were called to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the killing of nine people demonstrating in front of the Italian Consulate against a cartoon depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
“This is a preemptive attempt to prevent peaceful protests on Feb. 17,’’ the group’s Heba Morayef said.
Independent confirmation was not possible because the government controls the media, but video clips posted on the Internet showed protesters carrying signs and chanting: “No God but Allah. Moammar is the enemy of Allah,’’ and “Down, down to corruption and to the corrupt.’’
Police and armed government backers quickly clamped down, firing rubber bullets and dousing protesters with water cannons.
Another video with the same date showed people running away from gunfire while shots are heard. A young man in a white, bloodstained robe was then seen being carried by demonstrators.
A Libyan security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said 14 people, including 10 policemen, were injured.
He said protesters were armed with knives and stones. Witnesses said the protests were peaceful but came under attack from pro-Khadafy men.
In the southern city of Zentan, 75 miles south of Tripoli, hundreds marched through the streets and set fire to security headquarters and a police station, then set up tents in the town while chanting, “The people want the ouster of the regime,’’ witnesses told Warfali.
Resentment against Khadafy is high in Zentan because many of the detained army officers who took part in a failed coup in 1993 are from the city.