NICOSIA: Troops in Libya’s second city Benghazi firing heavy weaponry have killed at least 12 mourners who tried to storm a military barracks during mounting anti-regime protests, witnesses and reports said.
The death toll appeared to be approaching the 100 mark after nearly a week of protests, as the regime of veteran strongman Moamer Kadhafi pursues what Britain called a “horrifying” crackdown in eastern Libya.
The bloodshed worsened in Benghazi on Saturday when mourners heading to the funerals of people killed by security forces targeted a military barracks on the route to the cemetery, a newspaper editor told AFP.
They threw firebombs at the barracks and troops responded with live rounds in which “at least 12 people were killed and many more injured”, said Quryna chief editor Ramadan Briki, citing security sources.
A Benghazi resident told the BBC that the troops had fired on the mourners with mortars and 14.5 millimetre machine guns. It was a “massacre” of civilians and hospitals were running out of blood, Al-Jazeera quoted witnesses as saying.
The Middle East news network, citing doctors, said at least 15 people had died after being riddled by bullets from “high-velocity rifles”.
Kadhafi has still made no public comment about the unprecedented challenge to his four-decade regime, part of a region-wide wave of popular uprisings that have already toppled the regimes in Libya’s neighbours Tunisia and Egypt.
After regime opponents used Facebook to mobilise protests, as in neighbouring Egypt, the social networking website was blocked and Internet connections were patchy, Internet users in Tripoli and Benghazi said.
Libyan authorities said they had arrested dozens of foreign Arab nationals across the country for allegedly stoking the protests. The official Jana news agency hinted that Israel was behind the alleged plot.
Those detained were members of a “foreign network (and were) trained to damage Libya’s stability, the safety of its citizens and national unity”, Jana said.
Sources close to the investigation, quoted by the agency late Saturday, said the group included Tunisian, Egyptian, Sudanese, Palestinian, Syrian and Turkish citizens.
Reporting that “certain Libyan cities have been the scene of acts of sabotage and destruction since Tuesday”, Jana said the suspects sought to “take arms from police stations and the military police and use them”.
Before the latest bloodshed in Benghazi, New York-based Human Rights Watch said security forces had killed more than 80 anti-regime protesters in eastern Libya since Tuesday.
“Security forces are firing on Libyan citizens and killing scores simply because they’re demanding change and accountability,” it said, citing phone interviews with hospital staff and witnesses.
HRW said thousands had poured into the streets of Benghazi and other eastern cities on Friday, a day after clashes in which 49 people were killed including in the city of Al-Baida where two policemen were reportedly lynched.
The demonstrations have been largely confined to Libya’s east with the capital Tripoli quiet so far. But Al-Jazeera said thousands had protested peacefully in the western city of Misurata against state brutality.
Libya’s attorney general, Abdelrahman al-Abbar, has ordered an inquiry into the violence in the east, an official in Tripoli told AFP.
The prosecutor has called for “procedures to be expedited to judge all those who were guilty of death or looting”, the official said on condition of anonymity.
US President Barack Obama has condemned the use of violence against peaceful protesters in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, while Britain, France and the European Union urged Libyan authorities to exercise restraint.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague denounced the crackdown, urging authorities to rein in the army. Canada’s foreign minister urged the government to engage in a “peaceful dialogue” with protesters.
Washington cautioned US citizens to stay away from eastern Libya.
“The US Department of State strongly urges US citizens to avoid all demonstrations, as even peaceful ones can quickly become unruly and a foreigner could become a target of harassment, or worse,” said a statement.
Kadhafi, 68, is the longest-serving leader in the Arab world. His oil-producing North African state was long a Western pariah, but relations had improved markedly in recent years. — AFP