Libyan Opposition Calls for Rallies as Protester Deaths Heighten Tension

Libyan opposition groups called for more demonstrations against the four-decade rule of Muammar Qaddafi as the deaths of protesters in clashes with security forces and regime supporters heighten tension in the oil- producing North African nation.

Violence erupted during “Day of Anger” marches yesterday in five eastern cities, Human Rights Watch said yesterday in a statement. Since the protests began Feb. 16, 24 people have died, most in the second-largest city, Benghazi, and Baida, the third-largest, HRW said. Small groups set fires in the streets of the capital, Tripoli, and the office of internal security was set on fire in Benghazi, the BBC reported today.

“The security forces’ vicious attacks on peaceful demonstrators lay bare the reality of Qaddafi’s brutality when faced with any internal dissent,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement. “Libyans should not have to risk their lives to make a stand for their rights as human beings.”

Inspired by uprisings that toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and have erupted in other countries in the region, Libyan activists used the Internet, including social media, to organize the anti-government rallies. A group called Fight for Your Freedom used the Facebook website to call for demonstrations today after Muslim worshippers leave Friday prayers, saying, “We won’t bury our heads in the sand.”

Among the protesters’ grievances are Libya’s ban on political parties and lack of a constitution, said Karin Maree, a Libya analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Press Restrictions

There is little independent reporting from Libya due to the country’s tight press restrictions. The government-controlled media said people were rallying in praise of Qaddafi, Africa’s longest-serving leader, who has cracked down on his critics since coming to power in a military coup in 1969.

In videos posted on the Internet, demonstrators were shown burning photographs of Qaddafi in unidentified cities and chanting slogans similar to those used by protesters in Egypt, such as “the people want the regime to fall.”

In addition to the deaths, at least 70 people were injured in Baida, half of whom are in critical condition due to gunshot wounds, according to HRW.

The protests yesterday also took place in Zenten, Derna, and Ajdabiya, the group said. The east, Benghazi in particular, has been more economically deprived than other regions and “has traditionally been the center of opposition to Qaddafi,” Maree said. “For this to take off and gain significance it would have to spread west and to Tripoli, the center of power.”

Judges, Lawyers

Judges and lawyers were the first to stage protests, calling for an independent judiciary and a constitution, the BBC said. The government’s harsh response caused more people to take to the streets, with further demands, including regime change, the BBC said.

Libya holds the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, with 44.3 billion barrels in 2009, the BP Statistical Review of World Energy shows.

While the economy expanded by about 10 percent last year, reflecting increased oil production, unemployment has remained high, especially among the young, the International Monetary Fund said.

“Although economics has been part of the grievances, the real issue that cuts across these protests, is about local people’s demands for political representation,” Scott Lucas, professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham in England, said of the regional unrest. Lucas, founder of EA WorldView, a website on U.S. foreign policy and international affairs, spoke today in a telephone interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

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