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Libyan Opposition Calls for Rallies as Tension Rise

Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Libyan activists called for more rallies 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 nation.

Violence erupted during “Day of Anger” marches yesterday in five eastern cities, Human Rights Watch said in a statement. It said at least 24 people have died since unrest began Feb. 15, most in the second-largest city, Benghazi, and Baida, the third-biggest, where activists are reportedly setting up camps. Al-Jazeera said that as many as 50 people may have been killed.

“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.”

Small groups set fires in the streets of the capital, Tripoli, and the office of internal security was set ablaze in Benghazi, the BBC reported today. Pro-government rallies have taken place in Tripoli and Qaddafi has been meeting with tribal leaders to solicit their support, broadcaster Al Jazeera said.

Inspired by uprisings that toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and have broken out 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 after Friday prayers ended, 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 in London. Libya’s political system is based on Qaddafi’s Green Book, which combines socialist and Islamic theories and rejects parliamentary democracy and political parties.

Crude oil rose in London today, heading for its fourth weekly gain as demonstrations continued in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, heightening concerns that instability in the Arab world will affect energy supplies. Brent crude for April settlement rose as much as 0.9 percent, to $103.50 a barrel on the ICE Futures Europe exchange in London.

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.

Unidentified people in Benghazi told the BBC thousands gathered today outside the city’s courthouse, with security forces deployed on nearby streets. Protesters said they plan to take 23 bodies to cemeteries later today, the BBC said.

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 government is withholding medical supplies, the BBC said.

The protests yesterday also took place in Zenten, Derna and Ajdabiya, HRW 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. Qaddafi’s harsh response caused more people to join the protests, with demands that include regime change, the BBC said.

The government dominates Libya’s economy through complete control of oil resources, which account for about 95 percent of export earnings. 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 grew by about 10 percent last year, on increased oil production, unemployment remains high, especially among the young, the International Monetary Fund said.

“Economics has been part of the grievances,” Scott Lucas, a professor of American studies at the University of Birmingham in England and founder of EA WorldView, a website on U.S. foreign policy and international affairs, said by telephone. “But the real issue that cuts across these protests, is local people’s demands for political representation.”

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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