x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Dozens hurt as Libya braces for day of protests

Security forces and demonstrators clash ahead of 'Day of Anger' in Libya and protests against the rule of Muammer Qaddafi.

TRIPOLI // Dozens of people were injured in clashes in Benghazi, a hospital in the eastern city said Wednesday, as Libya braced for a "Day of Anger" after revolts in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.

The director of Al Jala hospital, Abdelkarim Gubeaili, told AFP that 38 people were treated for light injuries.

The Quryna newspaper said security forces and demonstrators clashed late on Tuesday in what it branded the work of "saboteurs" among a small group of protesters.

The security forces intervened to halt a confrontation between supporters of the Libyan leader Muammer Qaddafi, who has been in power for more than 40 years, and the demonstrators, said the newspaper close to Mr Qaddafi's son, Seif al Islam.

It said at least 10 members of the security forces were among the injured.

Mr Qaddafi faces rare internet calls for protests on Thursday by activists buoyed by the departure of veteran leaders on Libya's borders, in Egypt and Tunisia.

One of the Facebook groups calling for a "Day of Anger" in Libya and anti-regime protest, which had 4,400 members on Monday, more than doubled in number to 9,600 by Wednesday morning after the Benghazi unrest.

The European Union, meanwhile, urged Tripoli to allow "free expression". "We also call for calm and for all violence to be avoided," said a spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

In the aftermath of the unrest, activists were rounded up on Wednesday in Benghazi, an opposition stronghold, an informed Libyan source said, without giving details.

On the same day, authorities were to release 110 jailed Islamists of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, bringing to 360 the number of political detainees freed since last March, a human rights group said.

But the Libyan League For Human Rights said the releases were not connected to the planned protest and had been scheduled several months ago.

The protest started as a sit-in by families of more than 1,000 prisoners killed in a shooting in 1996 in Tripoli's Abu Salim prison demanding the release of their lawyer, Fethi Tarbel, Libyan newspapers said.

Mr Tarbel had been detained for having "spread rumours that the prison (in Tripoli) was on fire," according to Quryna, but was released after the demonstration.

But the crowd of protesters grew and they began chanting anti-regime slogans such as "the people will end the corruption" and "the blood of the martyrs will not be in vain," before police moved in to disperse them.

Police used force to disperse the crowd gathered outside a police post, it said, while the BBC quoted witnesses as saying stones were thrown at police who responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.

Marchers later hurled Molotov cocktails in a city centre square, damaging cars, blocking the road and hurling rocks, Quryna said.

Soon afterwards, state television showed hundreds of demonstrators in the streets of Benghazi as well as Tripoli, Syrte and Sebha in support for Mr Qaddafi, who seized power in a coup in 1969 which ousted a Western-backed monarchy.

Quryna said the unrest coincided with calls from exiled Libyan opposition figures living in the United States and Britain for "a campaign of incitement" against Tripoli broadcast on the American Arabic-language satellite Al Hurra.

A website, Libya Al Youm, also said the unrest prompted a show of strength by supporters of Kadhafi in Benghazi and a number of other cities.

State television ran footage of pro-regime demonstrators on foot and in cars, waving Libyan flags and portraits of Mr Qaddafi. They chanted slogans against the Arab news channel Al Jazeera, which accused by the regime of inciting unrest.

The protest planned for Thursday has been called to commemorate the deaths of 14 protesters in 2006 at an Islamist rally in Benghazi.

Like protest movements elsewhere in the Middle East, dissidents have been using the internet in a bid to rally support in a country where the media is tightly controlled by the state.

Under the banner "The February 17 Intifada [Uprising]: A Day of Strikes in Libya," one Facebook group has called for a popular uprising.

Another group of nearly 8,000 members called for Libyans to take to the streets for a "Day of Anger against corruption and nepotism".

In a petition received by AFP on Monday, more than 200 exiled Libyan opposition figures called for Mr Qaddafi's departure and the right to hold peaceful demonstrations in the country.