Witnesses: Libya army says Benghazi ‘liberated’ from pro-Ghadafi forces
(Wow! – JW)
Tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the country’s second largest city after security forces reportedly killed 200 people during clashes.
By News Agencies
Members of a Libyan army unit told Benghazi residents on Sunday night that they had defected and “liberated” the city from forces supporting veteran leader Moammar Gadhafi, two residents said.
Habib al-Obaidi, who heads the intensive care unit at the main Al-Jalae hospital, and lawyer Mohamed Al-Mana, told Reuters members of the “Thunderbolt” squad had arrived at the hospital with soldiers wounded in clashes with Gaddafi’s personal guard.
|Pro-Gadhafi supporters gather in Green Square after traditional Friday prayers in Tripoli, Libya, Friday, Feb. 18, 2011.|
|Photo by: AP|
“They are now saying that they have overpowered the Praetorian Guard and that they have joined the people’s revolt,” Mohamed said by telephone. It was not possible to independently verify the report.
Libyans protesting against Gadhafi’s rule appeared to control the streets of Benghazi by Sunday evening, even after security forces killed scores in the bloodiest of multiple revolts now rocking the Arab world.
Witnesses said Libya’s second city was in chaos, with government buildings ransacked and troops and police forced to retreat to a fortified compound, from where they picked off demonstrators with sniper and heavy-weapons fire.
The security forces are in their barracks and the city is in a state of civil mutiny,” one witness told Reuters.
Tens of thousands gathered in Benghazi on Sunday for funerals of protesters killed by Libyan security forces. Human Rights Watch said overnight violence had doubled the death toll from four days of clashes to at least 200. Fifty of those deaths took place on Sunday afternoon and evening, local doctors said.
Libyan forces fired machine-guns at mourners marching in a funeral procession for anti-government protesters in the eastern city of Benghazi, resuming the violent pattern of the previous days.
The unrest, the worst in Gadhfi’s four decades in power, started as a series of protests inspired by popular revolts in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, but was met by a fierce response.
Reporters have not been allowed into Libya’s second city but piecemeal accounts suggest its streets are largely under the control of anti-government protesters, who periodically come under attack from security forces firing out of their high-walled compound.
“A massacre took place here last night,” one Benghazi resident, who did not want to be named, told Reuters by telephone on Sunday.
He said security forces had used heavy weapons, adding: “Many soldiers and policemen have joined the protesters.”
Another resident of Benghazi, about 1,000 km (600 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, told Reuters: “Some 100,000 protesters are now heading for a cemetery to bury dozens of martyrs.”
Benghazi has been a center of a six-day revolt by Libyans inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and frustrated by Gadhafi’s more than 40 years of authoritarian rule.
A Benghazi hospital doctor said overnight victims had suffered severe wounds from high-velocity rifles.
Another witness, a leading tribal figure who requested anonymity, said security forces were confined to their compound.
“The state’s official presence is absent in the city and the security forces are in their barracks and the city is in a state of civil mutiny,” he told Reuters. “People are running their own affairs.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said about 90 people had been killed on Saturday in clashes in Benghazi and surrounding towns running into the night.
The witness who spoke of the funeral procession gathering said: “We fear a new massacre because the road leading to the cemetery is not far from a security barracks.
“We will not give up until the regime falls. We call on the United Nations to intervene immediately to stop the massacre.”
Another witness in Benghazi told Reuters thousands of people had performed ritual prayers in front of 60 bodies laid out near Benghazi’s northern court.
He said hundreds of thousands of people, including women and children, had come out onto the Mediterranean seafront and the area surrounding the port. “The protesters are here until the regime falls,” he said.
Libyan analysts say it is unlikely for the moment that Gadhafi will be overthrown because the unrest is largely confined to the eastern Cyrenaica region, where his support has traditionally been weaker than in the rest of the country.
The Libyan government has not released any casualty figures. A text message sent to mobile phone subscribers on Sunday said the protesters in the east were trying to break the region away from central rule.
“The deaths in Benghazi and Al Bayda [a nearby town], on both sides, were the result of attacks on weapons stores to use in terrorizing people and killing innocents,” it said.
“All Libyan sons, we have to all stand up to stop the cycle of separation and sedition and destruction of our beloved Libya.”
The crackdown prompted about 50 Libyan Muslim religious leaders to issue an appeal, sent to Reuters, for the security forces, as Muslims, to stop the killing.
“We appeal to every Muslim, within the regime or assisting it in any way, to recognize that the killing of innocent human beings is forbidden by our Creator and by His beloved Prophet of Compassion [peace be upon him] … Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!” the appeal said.
Foreign reaction to the unrest in Libya, a major energy producer with significant investment from Britain’s BP Plc, Exxon of the United States and Italy’s ENI among others, has so far been muted.
But Britain called on Sunday for a stronger response.
“The world should not hesitate to condemn those actions,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News.
“What Colonel Gadhafi should be doing is respecting basic human rights, and there is no sign of that in the dreadful response, the horrifying response, of the Libyan authorities to these protests.”
Libya was for decades under U.S. and European sanctions over its banned weapons program, so Gaddafi is unlikely to be alarmed at the prospect of new international isolation.
Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya, told the Independent on Sunday newspaper that Gadhafi would find it hard to make concessions in order to survive.
“I think the attitude of the Libyan regime is that it’s all or nothing,” he said.