Libyans demonstrated for a third day 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 North African oil-producing nation.
Thousands of people rallied after prayers in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest, according news agencies such as the British Broadcasting Corp. and opposition websites including the National Frontier for the Salvation of Libya. The office of internal security forces was set ablaze and a young girl was shot dead in the same city, the groups said.
Activists called for the protests after violence erupted during “Day of Anger” marches yesterday. Human Rights Watch said in a statement yesterday that at least 24 people have died since unrest began late Feb. 15, and that most of those deaths were in Benghazi, and Baida, the third-biggest city, also in the east. Al-Jazeera said 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.”
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.
Among the protesters’ initial grievances were Libya’s ban on political parties and lack of a constitution, said Karin Maree, a Libya analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. Many have also started calling for regime change, she said. Libya’s political system is based on Qaddafi’s “Green Book,” which combines socialist and Islamic theories and rejects parliamentary democracy and political parties.
Oil rose to the highest level in a week in New York as the escalating protests fueled concern over supplies from the region. Crude for March delivery increased $1, or 1.2 percent, to $87.36 a barrel at 9:34 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange after touching $87.56. 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 before settling at $101.47. The contract has risen 53 cents this week, its fourth consecutive increase.
Libya’s General People’s Congress halted its session indefinitely today without giving a reason, said Quryna, an online newspaper that has ties to Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam. Many state executives will be replaced as part of administrative changes when the congress returns, it said, citing unidentified people.
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.
At least 70 people have been injured in Baida since protests began, half of whom are in critical condition due to gunshot wounds, according to Human Rights Watch.
The protests yesterday also took place in Zenten, Derna and Ajdabiya, HRW said. The government had tried to prevent the demonstrations by arresting key activists, it 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.”
Pro-government rallies have taken place in Tripoli and Qaddafi has been meeting with tribal leaders to solicit their support, Al Jazeera 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.”