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Published: Friday, 2/25/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Kaddafi militias open fire on anti-regime protests in Libyan capital; 4 reported dead

BLADE NEWS SERVICES

Egyptian protesters chant slogans as they hold an anti-poster of Libyan Leader Moammar Kaddafi during a Friday demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. Egyptian protesters chant slogans as they hold an anti-poster of Libyan Leader Moammar Kaddafi during a Friday demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.
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BENGHAZI, Libya — Militias loyal to Moammar Kaddafi opened fire on protesters streaming out of mosques in the Libyan capital on Friday, demanding the regime's ouster, witnesses said, reporting at least four killed. Across rebellious cities in the east, tens of thousands held rallies in support of the first Tripoli protests in days.

Protesters chanting for Kaddafi's ouster streamed out of mosques near downtown Tripoli's Green Square and other districts after prayers, and they were confronted by troops and militiamen who opened fire, said several witnesses. Gunmen on rooftops in streets near the square shot down on marchers, they said.

One witness reported seeing three protesters killed in the Souq al-Jomaa area near the square, and another reported a fourth death in another district, Fashloum. The reports could not be immediately confirmed.

"There are all kind of bullets," said one protester near the Souq al-Jomaa, screaming in a telephone call to The Associated Press, with the rattle of shots audible in the background.

"The situation is chaotic in parts of Tripoli now," said another witness, who was among marchers in adjacent Algeria Square and said he saw militiamen firing in the air. Armed Kaddafi supporters were also speeding through some streets in vehicles, he said. Residents hiding in their homes also reported the sound of gunfire in other parts of the capital.

The call for regime opponents march from mosques after prayers was the first attempt to hold a major anti-Kaddafi rally in the capital since militiamen launched a bloody crackdown on marchers early in the week that left dozens dead. SMS messages were sent around urging, "Let us make this Friday the Friday of liberation," residents said. The residents and witnesses all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Kaddafi loyalists have clamped down hard in Tripoli, the center of the eroding territory that the Libyan leader's regime still controls. The uprising that began Feb. 15 has swept over nearly the entire eastern half of the country, breaking cities there out of his regime's hold.

Even in the pocket of northwestern Libya around Tripoli, several cities have also fallen into the hands of the rebellion. Militiamen and Kaddafi forces on Thursday were repelled in trying to take back opposition-held territory in the cities of Zawiya and Misrata, near the capital, in fighting that killed at least 30 people.

Starting Friday morning in Tripoli, pro-Kaddafi militiamen set up heavy security around many mosques in the city, trying to prevent any opposition gatherings. Armed young men with green armbands to show their support of Kaddafi set up checkpoints on many streets, stopping cars and searching them. Tanks and checkpoints lined the road to Tripoli's airport, witnesses said.

As gunfire raged downtown, gunmen opened fire on another march by thousands in Tajoura, a crowded impoverished district on the eastern side of the capital, a participant said. The crowd was moving down a main avenue toward Green Square when a hail of bullets hit, he said.

"We can't see where it is coming from," he said. "They don't want to stop." He said one man next to him was shot in the neck.

Tripoli, home to nearly a third of Libya's 6 million people, is the center of the territory that remains under Kaddafi's control after the uprising that began Feb. 15 swept over nearly the entire eastern half of the country, breaking cities there out of his regime's hold.

Even in the pocket of northwestern Libya around Tripoli, several cities have also fallen into the hands of the rebellion. Militiamen and Kaddafi forces on Thursday were repelled in trying to take back territory in the cities of Zawiya and Misrata in fighting that killed at least 30 people.

Several tens of thousands held a rally in support of the Tripoli protesters in the main square of Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi, where the revolt began and which is now part of the opposition-held territory in the east.

Tents — some with photographs of people who had been killed in fighting — were set up and residents served breakfast to people, many carrying signs in Arabic and Italian. Others climbed on a few tanks parked neearby, belonging to army units in the city that allied with the rebellion.

"We will not stop this rally until Tripoli is the capital again," said Omar Moussa, a demonstrator. "Libyans are all united ... Tripoli is our capital. Tripoli is in our hearts."

Muslim cleric Sameh Jaber led the prayers in the square, telling worshippers that Libyans "have revolted against injustice."

"God take revenge from Moammar Kaddafi because of what he did to the Libyan people," the cleric, wearing traditional Libyan white uniform and a red cap, said in remarks carried by Al-Jazeera TV. "God accept our martyrs and make their mothers, fathers and families patient."

Signaling continued defiance, Kaddafi's son Seif al-Islam, vowed his family will "live and die in Libya," according an excerpt from an interview to be aired later Friday on CNNTurk.

Asked about alternatives in the face of growing unrest, Kaddafi said: "Plan A is to live and die in Libya, Plan B is to live and die in Libya, Plan C is to live and die in Libya.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll in Libya at nearly 300, according to a partial count. Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000 people killed were "credible."

On a visit to Turkey, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the violence by pro-Kaddafi forces is unacceptable and should not go unpunished.

"Mr. Kaddafi must go," he said.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said Friday that the bloc needs to consider sanctions such as travel restrictions and an asset freeze against Libya to achieve a halt to the violence there and move toward democracy.

NATO's main decision-making body also planned to meet in emergency session Friday to consider the deteriorating situation, although Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance has no intention of intervening in the North African nation.

The U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, meanwhile, said reports of mass killings of thousands in Libya should spur the international community to "step in vigorously" to end the crackdown against anti-government protesters.





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