Protests continue in Arab world, aircraft bomb Tripoli (Roundup)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

TRIPOLI/MANAMA/RABAT - Intense unrest continued to rock the Arab world Tuesday as teeming protesters in the Libyan capital stood firm despite aerial bombing, fresh pro-democracy protests broke out in Morocco, and the Bahrain king attempted to quell the upheaval by agreeing to pardon political prisoners.

Fighter aircraft bombed parts of the Libyan capital Tripoli where furious anti-government protesters have gathered as a defiant Muammar Gaddafi, one of the Arab world’s longest ruling leaders, told state TV he was “in Tripoli and not in Venezuela”, contradicting Monday night reports that he has fled.

The 68-year-old Gaddafi, who as a young army officer grabbed power in a bloodless coup and has ruled Libya with iron fist for the past 41 years, made his first TV appearance since the unrest began last week said he was very much in the capital.

“I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela. Do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs,” Gaddafi told Libyan state TV, which mentioned he was speaking outside his house Tuesday.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested Monday that Gaddafi had fled to Venezuela. However, Caracas denied it.

Witnesses told Al Jazeera in Tripoli Tuesday that fighter aircraft had bombed parts of the city in fresh attacks. They said that “mercenaries” were firing on civilians.

Ali al-Essawi, who resigned as Libyan ambassador to India, was quoted as saying Tuesday that fighter jets had been used to bomb civilians.

He said live ammunition was being used against protesters. Describing the violence as “a massacre”, the former envoy called on the UN to block Libyan airspace so as to “protect the people”.

Libyan state television Tuesday termed as “lies and rumours” the allegations that security forces were killing protesters.

As many as 61 people were killed in the capital Monday, said witnesses. The toll, which the US-based Human Rights Watch group earlier put at 233, has now reportedly risen over 300.

Protests in the oil-rich country began Feb 14, but quickly gathered pace following a crackdown over a “Day of Rage” Feb 17. Demonstrators are said to have seized control of Benghazi city and several towns.

The anti-government protests in Libya have been inspired by the successful uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia in the west and Egypt in the east.

Tunisia saw a month-long mass unrest which toppled the 23-year rule of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali Jan 14. Barely a fortnight later Jan 25, protests erupted in Egypt and president Hosni Mubarak quit Feb 11. The sweeping unrest has also hit Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan.

The unrest in Libya took a dramatic turn Monday when a huge anti-government march in Tripoli came under attack by security forces using fighter jets and live ammunition, witnesses told Al Jazeera.

Gaddafi’s son, Seif-al-Islam, 38, a key member in the government, had warned of a bloodbath if protesters did not agree to reforms assured by the government.

Morocco was tense Tuesday after new pro-democracy demonstrations were held in several cities.

Demonstrators clashed with police in Imzouren in the north Monday, media reported.

Four people were reported to have been injured and several arrested.

Rallies were also staged in Fez, Tangier and the capital Rabat Monday. Several people were reportedly arrested in Fez.

The new protests followed demonstrations attended by tens of thousands of people around the country Sunday.

King Mohammed VI vowed not to cede to “demagoguery”, but promised important reforms shortly, without giving details.

In an attempt to quell the upheaval, the king of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa agreed to pardon political prisoners, but rejected other demands by protesters, a government source told RIA Novosti Tuesday.

Thousands of mainly Shiite protesters have been camped out in Manama and other cities since Jan 14, demanding more political representation in the country. At least five people were killed and 230 injured in the protests.

The king rejected other demands, such as dismissing the government and amending the constitution.

“We do not agree with demands of government dismissal and constitutional amendments. The authorities have already met many demands by the opposition,” the source said, adding that the authorities were ready to conduct “peace dialogue, to allow Shiites and Sunnis to live in peace and accord, as they used to.”

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