Scores of people were killed or wounded in Yemen, Egypt and Syria, and Libyan rebels battled loyalists in three cities, as protests against entrenched regimes shook the Middle East.
Yemeni security forces fired on demonstrators in three cities yesterday, leaving many wounded, and Syrian contingents shot at a funeral for protesters killed in an earlier demonstration. Egyptian military leaders blamed “outlaws” trying to “thwart the revolution” for killing at least one person when soldiers broke up a protest in central Cairo, which also left 71 injured.
Almost four months after a 26-year-old vegetable seller set himself alight in despair over Tunisia’s social, political and economic conditions, protestors in a half-dozen countries are trying to sweep away regimes that have ruled for decades. Countries from North America, Europe and the Middle East itself are also struggling to contain Libya’s dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, and ease the transition to democracy from Egypt to Yemen.
“We’re obviously in a period of unraveling of the old, and violence is a part of that,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “But it’s premature to conclude that this is the new normal.”
Battle for Control
Qaddafi’s troops battled rebels for control of Misrata and Ajdabiya on the Gulf of Sidra yesterday, according to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya television. Qaddafi forces also began shelling the city of Zantan, a spokesman for the town, Adel al-Zantani, told Al Jazeera.
“The humanitarian situation is pretty bad, and NATO hasn’t bombed any of Qaddafi’s troop emplacements,” al-Zantani said. The report couldn’t be immediately confirmed.
Aircraft from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization destroyed tanks and armored vehicles belonging to Qaddafi’s forces and munitions depots involved in the “indiscriminate shelling” of civilians in Misrata, Lieutenant General Charlie Bouchard, commander of the NATO contingent enforcing United Nations resolutions against Libya, said yesterday in Brussels.
“In addition to hitting their supplies, our aircraft successfully destroyed a significant percentage of the Libyan government’s armored forces,” said Bouchard, a Canadian.
Qaddafi’s forces continue to use human shields, he said.
“We have observed horrific examples of regime forces deliberately placing their weapons systems close to civilians, their homes and even their places of worship,” he said. “Troops have also been observed hiding behind women and children.”
Fighting may be at a standstill, according to reports from television networks with correspondents on the scene.
“Qaddafi has some staying power that can’t be denied,” said Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm based in Austin, Texas. “The coalition now faces a tough question: should they surge, arm the rebels and redefine their mission as regime change, possibly creating a situation they can’t control, or accept a stalemate?”
South African President Jacob Zuma will travel to Libya today with an African Union delegation to discuss a cease-fire with Qaddafi in Tripoli and rebel leaders in their stronghold of Benghazi in the east.
Crude oil rose above $112 in New York April 8 for the first time in 30 months on skepticism that Libyan output will rebound when fighting ends.
In Yemen, tens of thousands gathered throughout the country to call for an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule. Security forces and government loyalists fired on demonstrators in three cities yesterday, injuring people with bullets, batons and stones, according to witnesses.
Live gunfire in the capital, Sana’a, hurt 15 people, and 10 were injured by projectiles and truncheons, said Abdulmalik al-Usufi, a doctor at a field clinic in the central al-Tagheer square. More than 1,000 suffered tear-gas inhalation, he said.
In Taiz, at least 40 were injured by security personnel, Hussein al-Suhaili, who was at a field clinic near the site, said in a telephone interview. More than 500 have been affected by tear gas, he said. In Thamar, six students were injured in clashes, according to the al-Sahwa opposition website.
In Syria, security forces fired on a funeral for protesters killed in an earlier demonstration, and at least 25 died in rallies in the southwestern city of Daraa on April 8.
The “conservative” death toll is 40, while there are unconfirmed reports of 100 or more, with over 500 wounded, Ammar Abdulhamid, a Maryland-based Syrian dissident in contact with the demonstrators, said by e-mail yesterday.
Syria’s Interior Ministry said 19 police officers and members of the security forces were killed and 75 injured when gunmen fired on them, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
President Bashar al-Assad, whose Baath party has been in power since 1963, last week announced plans to ease political restrictions. He said changes won’t be rushed and called the protests a foreign-backed conspiracy.
The Cairo shooting came after thousands gathered in a downtown square demanding prompt trials for ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his top officials. Security and army troops used batons and fired shots in the air to drive out some protesters who attempted to camp there, witnesses said.
“Around 2 a.m., troops laid siege to the square from all directions and started to fire blank bullets and then live rounds,” Amir Kamal, a 29-year-old protester, said in an interview. “I saw a live bullet penetrate a man’s chest and come out from his back.”
At a news conference in Cairo yesterday, Major General Ismail Etman, of Egypt’s ruling military council, said soldiers “acted correctly.” Major General Adel Omara said “elements” he didn’t identify were trying to split the people and the army to “thwart the revolution.” Support from Egypt’s military was a key element in the peaceful departure of Mubarak in February.
Palestinians fired more than 20 rockets and mortar shells from the Gaza Strip after the Israeli air force struck a vehicle there and killed a Hamas militia commander and two aides.
More than 90 rockets or shells have been fired into Israel from Gaza since an Israeli school bus was hit by an anti-tank missile, wounding three Israelis, earlier this week. Seventeen people have been killed in Gaza since April 7, according to Adham Abu Selmeya, director of emergency services for Hamas.
“We have exercised a limited response so far,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, said at a news conference. “But we warn the occupation against continuing with their crimes,” he said, referring to Israel.