Benghazi, Libya: Marching Protesters Hit By Hail Of Gunfire: UPDATED

26 Feb

LATEST NEWS UPDATE: One Hour Ago: 2.20 am GMT

 
By PAUL SCHEMM and BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press Paul Schemm And Bassem Mroue, Associated Press :

BENGHAZI, Libya – Protesters demanding Moammar Gadhafi‘s ouster came under a hail of bullets Friday when pro-regime militiamen opened fire to stop the first significant anti-government marches in days in the Libyan capital. The Libyan leader, speaking from the ramparts of a historic Tripoli fort, told supporters to prepare to defend the nation.

Witnesses reported multiple deaths from gunmen on rooftops and in the streets shooting at crowds with automatic weapons and even an anti-aircraft gun.

“It was really like we are dogs,” one man who was marching from Tripoli’s eastern Tajoura district told The Associated Press. He added that many people were shot in the head, with seven people within 10 yards (meters) of him cut down in the first wave.

Also Friday evening, troops loyal to Gadhafi attacked a major air base east of Tripoli that had fallen into rebel hands.

A force of tanks attacked the Misrata Air Base, succeeding in retaking part of it in battles with residents and army units who had joined the anti-Gadhafi uprising, said a doctor and one resident wounded in the battle on the edge of opposition-held Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) from the capital.

The opposition captured two fighters, including a senior officer, and still held part of the large base, they said. Shooting could still be heard from the area after midnight. The doctor said 22 people were killed in two days of fighting at the air base and an adjacent civilian airport.

In Washington, the White House said it was moving forward with plans to impose unilateral sanctions on Libya in response to the regime’s bloody crackdown in the 11-day-old uprising. Hundreds have been killed, but rebels have taken control of nearly the entire eastern half of the country, as well as cities close to Gadhafi’s stronghold in the capital.

A White House spokesman said it is clear that Gadhafi’s legitimacy has been “reduced to zero” — the Obama administration’s sharpest words yet. The U.S. also temporarily abandoned its embassy in Tripoli as a final flight carrying American citizens departed from the capital.

The U.N. Security Council met to consider possible sanctions against Gadhafi’s regime, including trade sanctions and an arms embargo. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged it take “concrete action” to protect civilians in Libya, saying “the violence must stop” and those responsible for “so brutally shedding blood” must be punished.

But Gadhafi vowed to fight on. In the evening, he appeared before a crowd of more than 1,000 supporters in Green Square and called on them to fight back and “defend the nation.”

“Retaliate against them, retaliate against them,” Gadhafi said, speaking by microphone from the ramparts of the Red Castle, a Crusader fort overlooking the square. Wearing a fur cap, he shook his fist, telling the crowd: “Dance, sing and prepare. Prepare to defend Libya, to defend the oil, dignity and independence.”

He warned, “At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire.”

The crowd waved pictures of the leader and green flags as he said, “I am in the middle of the people in the Green Square. … This is the people that loves Moammar Gadhafi. If the people of Libya and the Arabs and Africans don’t love Moammar Gadhafi then Moammar Gadhafi does not deserve to live.”

Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, told foreign journalists invited by the government to Tripoli that there were no casualties in Tripoli and that the capital was “calm … Everything is peaceful. Peace is coming back to our country.”

He said the regime wants negotiations with the opposition and said there were “two minor problems” in Misrata and Zawiya, another city near the capital held by the opposition.

There, he said, “we are dealing with terrorist people.” But he said he hoped to reach a peaceful settlement with them “and i think by tomoorrow we will solve it.”

Earlier Seif was asked in an interview with CNN-Turk about the options in the face of the unrest. “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,” he replied.

The marches in the capital were the first major attempt by protesters to break a clampdown that pro-Gadhafi militiamen have imposed on Tripoli since the beginning of the week, when dozens were killed by gunmen roaming the street, shooting people on sight.

In the morning and night before, text messages were sent around urging protesters to stream out of mosques after noon prayers, saying, “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.

In response, 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 for Gadhafi set up checkpoints on many streets, stopping cars and searching them. Tanks and checkpoints lined the road to Tripoli’s airport, witnesses said.

After prayers, protesters flowed out of mosques, converging into marches from several neighborhoods, heading toward Green Square. But they were hit almost immediately by militiamen, a mix of Libyans and foreign mercenaries.

“We can’t see where it is coming from,” another protester from Tajoura district — several miles (kilometers) from Green Square — said of the gunfire. “They don’t want to stop.” He said a man next to him was shot in the neck.

In the nearby Souq al-Jomaa district, witnesses reported four killed as gunmen fired from rooftops. “There are all kind of bullets,” said one man in the crowd, screaming in a telephone call to the AP, with the rattle of gunfire audible in the background. Another protester was reported killed in the Fashloum district. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

After nightfall, protesters dispersed, and regime supporters prowled the streets, a resident said. As they have on past nights this week, many blockaded streets into their neighborhoods to prevent militiamen and strangers from entering.

Tripoli, home to about a third of Libya’s population of 6 million, is the center of the eroding territory that Gadhafi still controls. The opposition holds a long sweep of about half of Libya’s 1,000-mile (1,600- kilometer) Mediterranean coastline where most of the population lives.

Even in the Gadhafi-held pocket of northwestern Libya around Tripoli, several cities have also fallen to the rebellion. Militiamen and pro-Gadhafi troops were repelled Thursday when they launched attacks trying to take back opposition-held territory in Zawiya and Misrata in fighting that killed at least 30 people.

In an apparent bid to win public favor, parliament speaker Mohammed Abul-Qassim al-Zwai announced that the government would increase salaries and offer the unemployed a monthly salary. State TV reported the unemployed would get the equivalent of $117 a month and salaries would be raised 50 to 150 percent.

Support for Gadhafi continued to fray within a regime where he long commanded unquestioned loyalty.

Libya’s delegation to the United Nations in Geneva announced Friday it was defecting to the opposition — and it was given a standing ovation at a gathering of the U.N. Human Rights Council. They join a string of Libyan ambassadors and diplomats around the world who abandoned the regime, as have the justice and interior ministers at home, and one of Gadhafi’s cousins and closest aides, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, who sought refuge in Egypt.

Libya’s 11-member Arab League mission also announced its resignation in protest at the crackdown

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

“Mr. Gadhafi must go,” he said.

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

The upheaval in the OPEC nation has taken most of Libya’s oil production of 1.6 million barrels a day off the market. Oil prices hovered above $98 a barrel Friday in Asia, backing away from a spike to $103 the day before amid signs the crisis in Libya may have cut crude supplies less than previously estimated.

The opposition camp says it is in control of two of Libya’s major oil ports — Breqa and Ras Lanouf — on the Gulf of Sidra. A resident of Ras Lanouf said Friday that the security force guarding that port had joined the rebellion and were helping guard it, along with residents of the area.

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, about 580 miles (940 kilometers) east of the capital along the Mediterranean coast.

Tents were set up and residents served breakfast to people, many carrying signs in Arabic and Italian. Others climbed on a few tanks parked nearby, 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 prayers in the square, telling worshippers that Libyans “have revolted against injustice.”

“God take revenge from Moammar Gadhafi 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.”

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

NATO’s main decision-making body met in emergency session to consider the deteriorating situation. It said it would continue to monitor the crisis, but that it will not intervene. Participants at the NATO meeting decided it would be premature to discuss deployments or a no-fly zone over Libya, said a diplomat familiar with the discussions.

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

___

Mroue reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb, Ben Hubbard and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed to this report.

NEWS UPDATE:

By PAUL SCHEMM, Associated Press Paul Schemm, Associated Press :

BENGHAZI, Libya – The young men of Benghazi pounded the dreaded military barracks in the city center with everything they could find. They threw stones and crude bombs made of tin cans stuffed with gunpowder. They drove bulldozers into its walls. All under a blaze of gunfire from troops inside that literally tore people in half.

More than 100 were killed in three days of fighting. But in the end, the base fell and Moammar Gadhafi’s forces fled, executing comrades who refused to shoot.

The assault on the base known as the “Katiba” was the defining battle in the fall of Libya’s second largest city to the opposition uprising that has swept away Gadhafi’s rule in the eastern half of the country.

Now children clamber over the abandoned tanks inside the base and families drive around inside the sprawling compound, gawking at what for years had been a sort of feared Bastille, where detainees disappeared and where Gadhafi stayed when he was in town.

The revolt in Benghazi, about 580 miles (940 kilometers) east of Tripoli, began with protests that centered in the square outside the city’s courthouse overlooking the Mediterranean.

Thousands held rallies there for several days, turning it into a Libyan version of Egypt’s famous Tahrir Square. On Feb. 17, the protests turned deadly, when troops opened fire, killing 14.

The next day, a funeral procession of thousands made its way to the cemetery, filing past the Katiba.

Accounts differ on whether mourners began throwing stones first or the soldiers of the Katiba opened fire without provocation. But the result was a massacre, with the city’s main Al-Jalaa Hospital alone reporting 24 deaths in its morgue and hundreds of wounded.

On Feb. 19, a new procession thousands strong carried the dead from the previous day and once more passed the Katiba to the cemetery in an act of defiance.

“The people whose brothers had died the day before were in the first rank and they were the first to start throwing rocks,” recalled Aboul Qassim Bujezia. “The soldiers in the Katiba opened fire and everyone in the first rank died.”

The slight 27-year-old lay in his bed at home, recovering from his wounds that day. His father proffers an X-ray showing the 7.62 mm Kalashnikov slug lodged in the muscle of Bujezia’s calf. The doctors say it is too dangerous to remove for now.

“People around me were shot in the neck, head and eye, some twice, God was with me that day,” Bujezia said, describing how under heavy gunfire that day, the wounded were ferried to safety.

The city’s only trauma ward, at Al-Jalaa Hospital, was buckling under the flood of casualties.

“It was miserable for us, it was a very bad three days, like in Gaza,” recalled Dr. Hossam Majli.

What shocked the doctors most was that the soldiers were clearly shooting to kill, with most shots concentrated in the chest and heart, they said days later when the clean, brightly lit walls of the hospital showed little sign of the blood bath.

One of the few bodies remaining in the hospital’s overflowing morgue attests to the ferocity. As the drawer slides open it reveals a bearded man’s peaceful face. His body ends below his chest. His lower half was a red mix of shredded bone and muscle with a charred protruding spine — the likely effects of being hit by a rocket propelled grenades, guess the doctors.

Dr. Abdullah, who insisted his last name not be used, is the hospital’s head of surgery and casualty unit, and has dealt with effects of violence several times in his career, including after U.S. airstrikes and attacks by Gadhafi’s security forces. Most of his colleagues, though, were not ready for these kinds of injuries.

“There is a shortage of professional people to deal with these cases,” he said. “Our nurses are from the Philippines and other countries and their embassies are withdrawing them and we will have no nurses.”

Ayman Salam, a frail 28-year-old shot in the abdomen walking in the Feb. 19 funeral procession, was one of eight gunshot victims still in the hospital Thursday.

“They came out and started firing immediately. As I was shot I saw four others go down with me and I just lay there,” he said in a whispery voice, covered with tubes and bandages.

Benghazi’s youth focused their rage on the Katiba, throwing whatever they could at it.

“Every time they killed one of us, more came,” said Mohammed Haman, a lanky 29-year-old sporting a bandanna and an American accent from six years living in Baltimore. “When they started shooting, we hit back with bricks.”

Others fired homemade explosives known as “jalateen” — essentially gunpowder stuffed into a tin can normally used in the unsportsmanlike local style of fishing. They fired them over the high walls with spear guns, also used for fishing.

Others commandeered bulldozers and tried to breach the walls, often succumbing under heavy fire.

“You wouldn’t believe how much they were trying to capture the barracks,” said Dr. Abdullah. “The young people were making human shields for the drivers of the bulldozers,” he added, describing how he received four people all shot in the chest at the same height, while guarding a bulldozer.

As the battle wore on, a mob descended on a local army base on the outskirts of town and forced the soldiers to give up their weapons, including three small tanks. Truckers drove them into town and rammed those too into the Katiba’s walls.

Days later, the burned hulks of the armored vehicles can still be seen, stuck halfway into the breaches they made.

The fighting petered out by around 5 a.m. Feb. 20, with 30 people killed in the day’s fighting, according to Al-Jalaa’s morgue.

With the new day, another funeral cortege wended its way past the Katiba toward the cemetery.

This procession, however, contained a surprise. As it approached the barracks, a 49-year-old named Mahdi Ziu peeled out from behind with a car rigged with four propane tanks and filled with makeshift explosives.

He rammed the imposing gates, blowing them into a twisted pile of concrete and rebar, dying in the blast.

The battle was on once more. Again, it dragged on for most of the day, with the attackers joined by people from the eastern towns of Derna and Beyda, who had liberated weapons from local security bases.

It was the bloodiest day of the battle, with 42 bodies brought to Al-Jalaa’s morgue.

It only ended that afternoon when the Interior Minister Abdel-Fattah Younis showed up with contingent of special forces from the nearby base who had stayed out of the battle.

Charged by Gadhafi with relieving the besieged barracks, Younis instead announced his defection and promised the soldiers of the Katiba safe passage out if they would leave eastern Libya.

And with that, the last remnants of Gadhafi’s power left the city.

The final days inside the barracks were undoubtedly grim. In the Al-Jalaa morgue were eight badly burned bodies that doctors say had their hands tied behind them and bullets in their head. They are believed to have been soldiers who refused to fight.

The vast enclosure, filled with burned out buildings, is now a macabre tourist attraction. Children play on an abandoned tank that is still functional enough to raise and lower its huge main gun, much to their collective glee.

Metal doors open into strange dark tunnels leading underground, one to a large room with a heavy door, its purpose unknown. In one corner of the compound, people frantically dig into the soft earth with makeshift tools over rumors someone was buried within.

Soldiers now with the rebellion were also there to recover boxes of ammunition in the ongoing effort to retrieve the many weapons that fell into civilian hands during the days of chaos.

Near the entrance is the remnants of the imposing proscenium stand where Gadhafi once declared himself the king of kings of Africa, now fallen down. Nearly every building is covered with triumphant graffiti declaring “the New Libya.”

“I’m 41 years old, and this is the first time I had ever been inside and its been sitting in the middle of Benghazi all this time,” said Atif al-Hasiya, standing in front of the ravaged complex with a huge smile on his face.

Evidence of clashes at Benghazi airport Play Video Video:Evidence of clashes at Benghazi airport AFP

Thousands evacuated from Libya Play Video Video:Thousands evacuated from Libya Reuters

AP – Libyan gunmen flash the V sign

 

Play Video AFP  – Tobruk in the hands of Libya’s rebellion

Anti-government protests in Libya Slideshow:Anti-government protests in Libya

Q+A - How U.S. financial sanctions on Libya might ...
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