Libya fires on mourners as Mideast death toll rises

AFP , Sunday 20 Feb 2011

More than 100 protesters died in Libya over the past week in anti-government demonstrations, while Bahrainis insist on occupying the capital's main square to maintain pressure on the regime

A female protester touches blood stains on the grass of the Pearl Square in Bahraini capital of Manama 19 February 2011. (Reuters)

Libyan troops firing heavy weaponry killed at least 12 mourners in a bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters, witnesses said, as demonstrators re-took a main square in Bahrain's capital.

The death toll in Libya appeared to be approaching 100 after nearly a week of protests as the regime of veteran strongman Muammer Gaddaffi pursues what Britain called a "horrifying" crackdown in the country's east.

The bloodshed worsened in the country's second city Benghazi Saturday when mourners heading to the funerals of people killed by security forces targeted a military barracks on the route to the cemetery.

They threw firebombs at the barracks and troops responded with live rounds in which "at least 12 people were killed and many more injured", said Quryna chief editor Ramadan Briki, citing security sources.

A Benghazi resident told the BBC the troops had fired on the mourners with mortars and 14.5-millimetre machine guns. It was a "massacre" of civilians and hospitals were running out of blood, Al-Jazeera quoted witnesses as saying.

The Middle East news network, citing doctors, said at least 15 people had died after being riddled by bullets from "high-velocity rifles".

Gaddafi, 68, has still made no public comment about the unprecedented challenge to his four-decade regime, part of a region-wide wave of popular uprisings that have already toppled the regimes in Libya's neighbours Tunisia and Egypt.

Before the latest bloodshed in Benghazi, New York-based Human Rights Watch said security forces had killed more than 80 anti-regime protesters in eastern Libya since Tuesday.

"Security forces are firing on Libyan citizens and killing scores simply because they're demanding change and accountability," it said, citing phone interviews with hospital staff and witnesses.

HRW said thousands had poured into the streets of Benghazi and other eastern cities on Friday, a day after clashes in which 49 people were killed including in the city of Al-Baida where two policemen were reportedly lynched.

In Bahrain, anti-government protesters returned to Manama's Pearl Square while police and troops pulled back in an apparent conciliatory move.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa ordered forces to leave the area and stay away from demonstrators, the BNA state news agency reported, but jubilant protesters took back the square, setting up new tents.

Bahraini police had fired on protesters in Manama on Friday, wounding dozens, as the army announced "strict measures" to restore security in the tiny but strategic Sunni-ruled monarchy.

The latest developments come as pressure grows on the strategically vital Gulf kingdom to talk to the Shiite-led opposition, which demands that the government resign before talks offered by the king can begin.

US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon had a telephone conversation with the crown prince on Saturday, urging him to respect human rights and launch "meaningful" reform after mass protests

In Yemen, clashes erupted near the Sanaa university campus, leaving a number of students shot and wounded. The shootings came as government supporters, armed with guns, batons and rocks, tried to break into the campus and students responded by hurling stones.

Tribesmen and plain-clothes police also attacked the students during the clashes. Police did not intervene but blocked roads leading to the campus. As protests inspired by the ousters of long-serving rulers in Egypt and Tunisia continued to shake regimes across the region, the chief diplomats of Europe and Britain joined US President Barack Obama in urging restraint.

The region is of vital importance to Washington, with Bahrain the home base of the US Fifth Fleet and Yemen a key ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

On Saturday, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton called for dialogue in Bahrain "without delay", saying she was "deeply concerned" about the violence.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague denounced the "clearly unacceptable and horrifying" crackdown in Libya, urging authorities across the region to refrain from violence.

In Djibouti, authorities detained three top opposition leaders a day after an unprecedented protest to demand regime change erupted into violence that left two dead.

About 200 protesters also confronted riot police in a bid to rally in central Algiers, chanting "Algeria free and democratic" and "People want the fall of the regime".

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