Libya’s “Day of Anger” protests against Muammar Qaddafi, in power for 41 years, led to clashes with pro-government forces in which at least 19 people were reported killed.
An opposition website and an anti-Qaddafi activist said violence broke out during marches yesterday in five Libyan cities, according to the Associated Press. The 19 deaths were in the second- and third-largest cities, Benghazi and Beyida, according to Al Arabiya television. An opposition website said some demonstrators were killed by snipers from the internal security forces, according to AP.
There is an absence of independent reporting due to Libya’s tight press restrictions. The government-controlled Libyan media presented reports of people praising Qaddafi, who has ruled since 1969 while tolerating no dissent.
Amnesty International, in a statement, cited unconfirmed reports that at least 12 protesters were killed in clashes in the last two days and urged the Libyan authorities to “cease using excessive force to suppress anti-government protests.”
“Libyan police and security forces must respect the rights of protesters, not abuse them,” Amnesty said. “The government must rein in these forces and order an immediate impartial investigation into the deadly and other excessive force that has been used so far.”
Libya holds the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, with 44.3 billion barrels in 2009, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Qaddafi is Africa’s longest serving leader.
Libyan security forces arrested at least 14 people for trying to organize the anti-government rallies, Human Rights Watch said in a statement yesterday that urged authorities to immediately free the activists.
Among those being held are Mohamed al-Sahim, a writer, and four former political prisoners -- the brothers Farag, Al-Mahdi, Sadek, and Ali Hmeid, the campaign group said on its website. The arrests began on Feb. 1, according to the statement.
Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, Libyan activists had been using the Internet and social media to call for the “Day of Anger” rally yesterday, the anniversary of a 2006 protest during which security forces killed at least 12 people, who were attacking the city’s Italian consulate.
Libya’s regime has been sending text messages to warn people that live bullets will be fired if they joined yesterday’s protests, al-Jazeera reported.
“Colonel Muammar Qaddafi should learn from his former neighbors that stability has to include respect for peaceful protest,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said, referring to the mass protests that led to Hosni Mubarak resigning as Egypt’s president Feb. 11 and former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fleeing on Jan. 14.
State television reported that pro-government supporters were assembling across Libya yesterday, which is also the anniversary of the 1987 public execution of nine Libyans convicted of trying to kill Libyan and foreign officials.
At least two people died Feb. 16 in clashes between security forces and protesters in Beyida, a town east of Benghazi, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Libyan authorities tried to smother this protest before it even got off the ground but that, clearly, did not work,” said Amnesty International. “Now they are resorting to brutal means to punish and deter the protesters,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Tripoli residents said they were having trouble accessing the Internet, AP reported, although it was not clear whether access had been blocked or the bandwidth reduced has happened for a period in Egypt.