TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Clashes broke out in several towns in Libya on Thursday after the opposition called for a day of protests, reports and a witness said, while supporters of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi rallied in the capital.
Gaddafi opponents, communicating anonymously online or working in exile, had urged people to protest on Thursday to try to emulate popular uprisings which unseated long-serving rulers in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
In the capital of the oil exporting country there was no sign of any demonstrations, a Reuters reporter said, apart from the pro-Gaddafi demonstrators in the city’s Green Square chanting “We are defending Gaddafi!” and waving his portrait.
A resident of the eastern town of Al Bayda told Reuters 15 people were hurt in a confrontation between government supporters and relatives of two men killed during a protest a day earlier. Fighting broke out soon after the two were buried.
“The situation is still complicated,” said the resident, who was contacted by telephone and did not want to be identified. “The young people do not want to listen to what the elders say.”
Local newspapers earlier reported the regional security chief was removed from his post over the deaths of the two young men. There were reports of higher death tolls but they could not be confirmed.
Al Bayda is near Benghazi, Libya‘s second city, where protesters clashed with police and Gaddafi supporters late on Tuesday. A resident in the city told Reuters: “Benghazi is quiet.”
The New York-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch said Libyan authorities had detained 14 activists and writers who had been preparing the anti-government protests, and telephone lines to parts of the country were out of order.
In a possible move to calm the unrest, the newspaper Quryna, which has ties to Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, reported Libya’s parliament was preparing next week to adopt “major shifts,” including government personnel changes.
BUILDING ON FIRE
Snatches of information about protests were trickling out from parts of the country on an Arabic-language Facebook page used by opposition activists, but the sources were not clear and it was not possible to verify the details.
One post said protesters in Ar Rajban near the border with Algeria set fire to a local government headquarters. In Zenten, south-west of Tripoli, protesters shouted “we will win or die,” said another post, which had a photograph of a building on fire.
In the capital, traffic was moving as normal, banks and shops were open and there was no increased security presence.
Tripoli resident Ahmed Rehibi said anti-government protests were an unnecessary distraction. “We should be concentrating on working, on our schools, because now we are trying to build up our infrastructure,” he said.
Political analysts say an Egyptian-style revolt is unlikely because the government can use oil revenues to smooth over most social problems.
Libya has been tightly controlled for more than 40 years by Gaddafi, born in 1942 and now Africa’s longest-serving leader, and has immense oil wealth. The country has nevertheless felt the ripples from the uprisings in neighboring states.
“We have problems,” Mustafa Fetouri, a Tripoli-based political analyst and university professor, told Reuters. “This is a society that is still behind in many ways, there are certain legitimate problems that have to be sorted out.”
However, he said: “I do not really see it (unrest) spreading … Gaddafi remains well respected.”
Libya bans all political parties, public dissent is rarely tolerated and during Gaddafi’s time in office, rights groups say, thousands of his opponents have been put in prison.
Gaddafi and his supporters say Libya is a democracy because of his system of direct rule through grass-roots institutions called popular committees.
Opposition activists designated Thursday as a day of protests because it is the anniversary of clashes on February 17, 2006, in Benghazi when security forces killed several protesters who were attacking the city’s Italian consulate.
On the eve of the planned protests, SMS messages were sent to mobile phone subscribers saying: “From the youth of Libya to all those who are tempted to touch the four red lines: come and face us in any square or street in Libya.”
The four red lines, defined in a 2007 speech by one of Gaddafi’s sons, are Islam, security, territorial integrity, and Muammar Gaddafi.