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Clashes, fires reported in Libya’s capital

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Anti-government protests raged Monday for the first time in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, with unconfirmed media reports of pro-regime snipers firing into crowds, bloody clashes on the city’s main square and fires blazing in key government buildings.

Al Jazeera reported that a fire was burning inside the People’s Hall, a symbol of longtime strongman Moammar Kadafi’s repressive regime. TV images showed demonstrators setting fires in the streets, but the size of the protests wasn’t clear.

Snipers opened fire from rooftops on people protesting overnight, the Associated Press reported, citing an unidentified witness. The agency said gunmen driving in cars displaying photos of Kadafi also opened fire on protesters in the streets.

There was no immediate word on Kadafi’s location. But after 41 years in office, his once-invincible hold on power appeared to be faltering.

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The violence flared overnight, and witnesses said gunfire was heard across the city in the early morning. Government forces appeared to regain control of the central Green Square by midday Monday, according to the BBC.

Citing witnesses in Tripoli, the network said protesters had besieged the building that houses state-run TV and forced at least one channel off the air.

The reports from the capital came hours after Kadafi’s son acknowledged in comments broadcast early Monday that protesters had seized control of Benghazi -- the country’s second-largest city -- and several eastern towns. But he vowed that security forces would fight “to the last bullet” against efforts to end his father’s four decades in power.

Human-rights groups said the death toll in Libya had exceeded 200 after six days of unrest. Police and government-hired mercenaries Sunday shot at people gathered to mourn three dozen activists killed by police the previous day in Benghazi, according to video and online accounts trickling out of Libya. There were reports of government snipers firing on demonstrators from rooftops there as well.

The day’s events shook Kadafi, a mercurial leader who was an implacable foe of the United States until he began to make overtures to the West in 2003. The oil-rich nation has been closed to outsiders and authorities have restricted Internet and phone access.

Elsewhere, the tide of protest across the Middle East and North Africa swelled, from Morocco on the Mediterranean to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, both ruled by pro-Western leaders. In Yemen, some legislators and regional officials quit the ruling party because of a crackdown on protests by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In a sign of the United States’ growing concern, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began a weeklong trip for talks with U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Kadafi’s son Seif Islam, appearing after midnight on state television, warned of an impending civil war and said the country had reached “a critical crossroads.” He denied rumors that his father had fled the country, saying only that Kadafi was still in Libya.

The younger Kadafi said the military had made mistakes in confronting demonstrators but would remain loyal. He blamed the unrest on foreigners, Islamists and criminals whom he accused of plunging the country into civil war and threatening to destroy its oil wealth.

Demonstrators had “formed a government” in Benghazi and other eastern towns, he said, but he vowed that the government would “fight until the last man … the last bullet” to crush the revolt.

He offered to engage dissidents in a “historic national initiative.” It was not clear when the remarks were recorded.

Protesters in the capital, Tripoli, contacted by Al Jazeera news channel and the BBC said early Monday that security forces seemed to be retreating from some parts of the city and that demonstrations there were growing. Addressing the elder Kadafi, protesters chanted: “Where are you? Come out if you’re a man!”

Khaled Mattawa, a poet who is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said relatives in Tripoli had told him that at about midnight protesters converging from several directions on the city center were scattered by live fire.

In comments earlier, analyst Amr Chobaki of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo said that Kadafi controlled Tripoli but had lost Benghazi and much of the east to the protesters.

“It puts him in a very bad situation,” Chobaki said.

Human Rights Watch said Sunday that, based on information from hospital sources, the death toll was at least 233. Amnesty International accused Kadafi of trying to suppress the protests “virtually at any cost.”

In Benghazi and other towns, according to accounts on social-networking websites, demonstrators chanted, “The people demand the removal of the regime!” — the same chants that rallied protesters in successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

But unlike those two north African nations, Libya is a tribal society. The army and security services are structured on tribal loyalties, making it less likely that the military will take the nonconfrontational approach of Egypt’s professionally trained army.

Amnesty International said bodies in Benghazi bore gunshot wounds in the head, chest and neck, indicating that security forces were shooting to kill. Some Libyan websites reported that Benghazi hospitals were putting out emergency calls for medicine and supplies after treating waves of victims over the weekend.

Mattawa, the Michigan professor, said a relative in Benghazi told him the last battle for control of the city took place in a military compound about three miles outside town. The army forces had split and were fighting each other, according to that report. People in the eastern port of Dernah also reported their city was under opposition control, he said.

“We don’t need bread; we’ve eaten enough,” he quoted a writer in Dernah as telling him. “We want to eat democracy; we want to drink freedom.”

Cities in eastern Libya have long been hotbeds of unrest. In 1996, Kadafi’s security forces massacred a reported 1,000 prisoners at Abu Lim prison in Benghazi, and anti-government anger has simmered since.

Meanwhile, in Sana, the Yemeni capital, 11 members of parliament withdrew from President Saleh’s ruling party, and several government officials in the city of Taizz resigned over the weekend in moves that may indicate a sea change in the nation’s political unrest.

“The regime must respond to the people’s demands, or we will be casualties in an earthquake of change,” said Ali Mamari, a member of parliament who defected from Saleh’s party Sunday.

The resignations come at a time when Saleh faces renewed opposition from within his own tribe, the powerful Hashid Confederation, and from the national political opposition coalition.

“It’s too late for Saleh,” said Mohammed Qahtan, a leading member of Islah, the main opposition party. “The people know he could never head up a democratic state.”

The Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of opposition parties that originally took a conciliatory position toward Saleh, released a full-throated endorsement of the protesters. For the first time, several members of parliament on Sunday night joined young activists on the street in front of Sana University.

Some resignations were in direct response to the brutal crackdowns on protesters in cities around Yemen. On Saturday, four people were critically injured when pro-Saleh forces fired into an unarmed crowd. On Sunday, a small band of government supporters, armed with sticks and knives, attacked a group of protesters in Sana. No deaths were reported.

In recent weeks, Saleh has watched his once-solid grasp on power in the northern tribal regions slip. Several members of the Ahmar family, whose members head both the Hashid Confederation and the opposition coalition, began jockeying with Saleh for tribal leaders’ favor.

Hamid Ahmar, who has been an outspoken critic of Saleh since 2006 and is considered a front-runner for the presidency, has publicly announced his support for the protesters.

Saleh held a rally for tribal sheiks in the capital Sunday. The assembled crowd of about 30,000 cheered wildly after Saleh pledged his undying support to them. They in return pledged to protect his right to rule Yemen.

Government forces have lost control of districts in the southern city of Aden, where protesters looted and burned at least two police stations last week. Both southern separatist leaders and Houthi rebels, who have fought with Saleh’s government the last five years, have pledged to support the anti-Saleh protesters.

In Iran, reports of clashes between protesters and security forces in several cities surfaced on opposition news sites Sunday. The state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency reported that the daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Faezeh Rafsanjani, had been arrested for taking part in an “illegal” opposition rally. She reportedly was released later.

In Tunisia, the interim government formally requested extradition of ousted President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. Rumors also have been swirling about Ben Ali’s failing health.

In Bahrain, protesters continued to hold a main square for a second day as opposition parties held to their demands for concessions from the king before entering negotiations. The island kingdom’s crown prince called for dialogue with opposition parties and expressed sorrow for the deaths of at least six people since protests began Feb. 14.

Adm. Mullen, in his second trip to the region since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned Feb. 11, apparently is not stopping in Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th Fleet maintains its headquarters. Mullen will press governments to allow peaceful protests to continue, said his spokesman, Capt. John Kirby.

The trip was planned before the current unrest, in part so Mullen could participate in celebrations in Kuwait to mark the anniversary of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kirby said.

Some unions went on strike Sunday, but otherwise life returned to normal in Bahrain as businessmen went to work and shopping centers opened.

In Cairo, banks reopened Sunday after being closed on most days since demonstrations against Mubarak erupted last month. In another sign that the ruling military council was seeking a return to normality, the pyramids and other antiquities sites were reopened to tourists.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Times staff writers David S. Cloud in Washington, Borzou Daragahi in Rabat, Morocco, and Ned Parker in Manama, Bahrain, Davan Maharaj in Los Angeles and special correspondents Haley Sweetland Edwards in Sana, Yemen, Amro Hassan in Cairo and Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.


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