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February 23 - March 1 2011
Middle East in crisis
Main picture, a crowd gathers in Benghazi, Libya,
and protesters take to the streets in Bahrain (right)
and in Rabat, Morocco (left)
By John Bingham, Nabila Ramdani in Cairo and Richard Spencer THE US government accused Britain of legitimising the Gaddafi regime on Sunday night after the massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Libya.
Up to 300 demonstrators are thought to have been killed after forces loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi attacked them with sniper fire, knives and heavy artillery.
The eastern city of Benghazi was said to be in a state of “civil mutiny” after forces, believed to be African mercenaries, attacked crowds attending mass burials of the dead from earlier violence. The unrest, following the overthrow of the rulers of neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt and protests in Bahrain, had spread to other Libyan cities, including the capital, Tripoli, on Sunday night.
Thousands of Britons began an evacuation from the country as Benghazi was described as a “war zone” by senior figures in the regime.
Hundreds of people died over the weekend as forces loyal to Col Gaddafi, who has ruled for 42 years, used highvelocity sniper rifles, machine guns and even anti-aircraft artillery against protesters.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the dictator’s second son and heir apparent, on Sunday night warned of “rivers of blood” and said Libya was on the brink of a civil war that would burn its oil wealth.
Estimates of the dead varied widely, from 173 by Human Rights Watch, to more than 300.
“Benghazi is a war zone — the situation is very tense,” said a highly placed source in Tripoli. “Troops including mercenaries are being sent there by plane. The fighting is intensifying.
“Lots of people are being killed, including members of the security forces. The figures are certainly above 200, with many thousands more injured.”
A Libyan journalist claimed that a group of women and children jumped to their deaths from a bridge in Benghazi to escape the mercenaries. “They’re vicious. People are so terrified that they’ve been doing everything possible to get away,” he said.”
Mona Rishmawi, legal adviser for the UN High Commission on Human Rights, said there was a “real question mark” over arms sales to the regime.
“We are very concerned about any possibility of complicity in human rights violations,” she said. Last week Britain announced it was revoking more than 50 arms export licences for Bahrain and Libya, including items such as tear gas.
Louis Susman, the US ambassador to London, suggested moves to repair relations with the Libyan dictator had only served to give him “greater stature” on the world stage.
Downing Street said David Cameron was “gravely concerned by reports of escalating violence and large numbers of civilian deaths”.
“We condemn any use of force by the Libyan authorities against peaceful protesters. Such repression is unacceptable, counterproductive and wrong,” said a statement. “The Libyan government must listen to the views of its people and respond to them.”
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, voiced his concerns in a telephone call to Col Gaddafi’s British-educated son, Saif.
“The world should not hesitate to condemn those actions,” he said. “What Col Gaddafi 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.” Despite the criticism of the violence, both Mr Hague and Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, defended new multi-millionpound trade links with Libya, opened following Tony Blair’s “deal in the desert” in 2007. Mr Clarke told the BBC: “I don’t think we’ve made a mistake in having investment there.”
Mr Susman said: “I would suggest that to deal with him, to give him greater stature, greater ability on the world front to look like he is a good citizen is a mistake.”
Col Gaddafi briefly appeared on state television in a pro-government rally, but has otherwise remained silent. In a televised statement, his son Saif acknowledged the army made mistakes during the protests, but denied reports that “hundreds” were killed. He said the regime was willing to remove some restrictions and discuss the constitution.
By Adrian Blomfield in Manama THE king of Bahrain came under heavy opposition pressure to prove his newly stated commitment to reform on Sunday by sacking his unpopular uncle, the world’s longest-serving prime minister.
Shia opposition leaders said they would resist a government offer of dialogue until the kingdom’s Sunni rulers made a significant gesture by sacrificing Prince Khalifa, who has held his position since Bahrain’s independence from Britain in 1971. They also called for the release of political prisoners.
A day after King Hamad was forced to call his army off the streets after a brutal military crackdown that killed at least seven people failed to quell the protests, the opposition has sensed momentum swinging its way.
They are also hoping to take advantage of rumoured rifts in the Al Khalifa dynasty that have pitted hardliners, including the prime minister, against a group of reformists around the king and his son, Crown Prince Salman.
The desire to see Prince Khalifa ousted is almost universally shared by the tens of thousands of protesters who reoccupied Pearl Monument, the symbolic centre of the capital Manama, after the security forces withdrew last Saturday night.
The prime minister is widely blamed for the economic and political marginalisation of Bahrain’s Shia majority, which accounts for up to 70 per cent of the population. Regarded as one of the richest men in the state, he is seen by many as a symbol of the corruption allegations that have blighted the ruling family.
“After 40 years of being in power, the time has come for him to step down,” said Jawad Fairooz, a senior member of the main Shia opposition party, Wefaq. With Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, adding her voice to international calls for reform, King Hamad has instructed the Crown Prince to begin negotiations with the opposition. It is demanding a constitutional monarchy, genuine political representation and a fairer deal for Shias.
By Richard Spencer POLICE and Basij militia locked down the centre of Tehran on Sunday night after crowds of anti-regime demonstrators tried to converge on central squares from across the city.
Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of the former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was arrested briefly, accused of “provocative behaviour”, though she was later released.
Opposition and exile websites claimed there were clashes between police firing tear gas and protest groups, and reports of gunfire.
The government insisted the city was “peaceful” though the deputy police chief admitted special forces had been deployed.
The past week has seen a resurgence of the opposition Green Movement, which during the 2009 presidential election rallied around MirHossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the defeated candidates.
Two people have died in clashes between demonstrators and progovernment forces. Opposition groups in exile claimed rallies had taken place in other cities, including Isfahan, Shiras and Tabriz.
Elsewhere, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, facing an 11th consecutive day of protests, called for dialogue with the opposition.
Mr Saleh has promised not to stand for a new term in 2013 but protesters are demanding he step down now.
Tunisia’s interim government asked Saudi Arabia to extradite Zine alAbidine Ben Ali, a month after he was deposed. The government, which is facing fresh calls for it to resign, made the official request to Riyadh, where Mr Ben Ali fled on January 14.
There were more protests by members of the “bidoon” or stateless community in Kuwait. Bidoons, who number in the hundreds of thousands in countries across the Gulf, are residents who have never been granted citizenship.
In Morocco, thousands of people marched through the capital, Rabat, and also Casablanca, calling for limits to the powers of King Mohammed V.