Libya: Benghazi tense as police leave the streets

AP and Ahram Online, Saturday 19 Feb 2011

After violent clashes between protesters and security forces, police desert the city of Benghazi

Dozens have been killed in anti-government protests by state security as Gaddafi rallies his supporters 18 February 2011. (AP)

Benghazi is no longer under the control of the Libya government, eyewitnesses said according to an Al Jazeera report. 

Libyans set up neighborhood patrols in the shaken eastern city of Benghazi on Saturday as police disappeared from the streets following an attack by government forces on a two-day-old encampment of protesters demanding an end to Muammer Gaddafi's regime, eyewitnesses said.

The situation in the North African nation has become increasingly chaotic, with a human rights group estimating 84 people have died in a harsh crackdown on anti-Gaddafi demonstrations and the US-based Arbor Networks security company saying Internet service was cut off around 2 am Saturday, eliminating a critical link to the outside world.

"We don't see a single policeman in the streets, not even traffic police," a lawyer in Benghazi said. People feared that pro-government forces would soon follow up the encampment raid with house-to-house attacks.

"Residents formed neighborhood watches ... guarding their houses and neighborhoods," the lawyer said. He and other people inside Libya spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Switzerland-based Libyan activist Fathi Al-Warfali said that several other activists had been detained including Abdel Hafez Gougha, a well-known organizer who was being held after security forces stormed his house in a night raid.

According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 84 people have died in the Libyan protests, which have escalated dramatically since they began on Tuesday. Tolls given to the Associated Press on Friday largely tally with those announced by the rights group.

About 5:00 a.m. Saturday, special forces attacked hundreds of protesters, including lawyers and judges, camped out in front of the courthouse in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and a focus for the anti-government unrest.

"They fired tear gas on protesters in tents and cleared the areas after many fled carrying the dead and the injured," one protester said over the phone from Benghazi.

Doctors in Benghazi said Friday that 35 bodies had been brought to the hospital following attacks by security forces backed by militias, on top of more than a dozen killed the day before.

Standing in front of Jalaa Hospital morgue, an eyewitness said that the bodies bore wounds from shots "directly at the head and the chests." About 20 coffins were brought to the square outside the Benghazi courthouse later Saturday as part of a mass funeral for the shooting victims, another witness said.

Thousands of mourners were at the scene.

Gaddafi is facing the biggest popular uprising of his 42-year autocratic reign, with Libyans taking to the streets and much of the action in the country's impoverished east.

The nation has huge oil reserves but poverty is a significant problem. US diplomats have said in newly leaked memos that Gaddafi's regime seems to neglect the east intentionally, letting unemployment and poverty rise to weaken opponents there.

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