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Gaddafi next? Anti-government protests spread to Libya

CAIRO — The anti-government protest wave unleashed in Tunisia and Egypt in the past few weeks swept into Libya, where demonstrators battled security forces in a rare public outpouring of anger at longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, according to the organization Human Rights Watch.

The protests against the eccentric Gaddafi, the Arab world's longest-ruling autocrat, erupted late Tuesday in Bengazi, Libya's second largest city, after the arrest of a prominent human rights lawyer, and raged past dawn Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said.

The group said that Libyan security forces used tear gas and batons to break up protesters who were planning a large Thursday demonstration. One person was killed, and security forces arrested at least 14, the group said.

The Libyan protesters called for a "day of anger" Thursday.

"With people from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Iran asserting their right to protest, the Libyan government is responding in exactly the wrong way," said Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. "Colonel Muammar Gaddafi should learn from his former neighbors that stability has to include respect for peaceful protest."

The tumult in Bengazi came as anti-government protests grew in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain and in Yemen, where one person was killed in a clash with police in the southern port of Aden.

In Egypt, meanwhile, scattered labor unrest flared five days after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. Activists called for major protests Friday to maintain pressure on the ruling military council to enact promised reforms.

There was no sign that the turmoil inspired by the uprisings against Mubarak and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was abating in a region ruled for decades by depots and monarchs, many of them supported by the U.S. and other Western powers.

The Obama administration, caught unawares by the breadth and speed of the turbulence, reaffirmed a policy shift in sympathy with the mostly youthful protesters who have used Facebook, Twitter and other social media to organize the largely leaderless protests.

The U.S. "supports democratic change," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a State Department meeting with civil society activists from across the globe. "It is in line with our values and our interests. We support citizens working to make their governments more open, transparent, and accountable. We uphold the universal rights of every person to live freely, to have your voice heard and your vote count."

But an Egyptian activist in attendance, Sherif Mansour, reminded Clinton of Washington's support for corrupt, autocratic governments in the region.

"Let's be honest," Mansour said. "The record of the U.S. foreign policy on Egypt and on Tunisia is not very good. I think what we've seen over the last 30 years is . . . complete support for the governments of those countries without enough leverage for civil society."

The unrest doesn't appear to immediately threaten Gaddafi's rule, and the regime mobilized large pro-government crowds to counter the demonstrations.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley urged Libya to respond to the protesters' demands, including the release of prisoners. "We encourage these countries to take specific actions that address the aspirations and the needs and hopes of their people. Libya certainly would be in that same category," Crowley said.

Asked if Gaddafi is a dictator, Crowley demurred. "I don't think he came to office through a democratic process."

Gaddafi was among a group of junior army officers who staged a bloodless 1969 coup against the monarchy.

In Bahrain, as many as 10,000 people filled Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, in a growing standoff with the dynasty of King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, a witness said. After two deaths earlier in the week, and a rare televised appearance by the king expressing regret, no violence was reported.

But there was a large police presence on one side of the square, a major traffic intersection, said the witness, who asked not to be named for safety reasons.

The protesters, who are demanding democratic reforms, were attempting to recreate the role and the carnival-like atmosphere of the 18-day occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square that became the hub of the revolt against Mubarak.

They camped in tents, made speeches, played music and even set up a media center.

State-run television has downplayed the protests, portraying them inaccurately as the work of the Sunni Muslim-ruled country's disaffected Shiite majority, the witness said. Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

In Yemen, the impoverished nation of 23.5 million at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, a sixth day of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh spread to Aden.

Some 500 protesters attacked a police station in Aden, prompting officers to fire live ammunition, witnesses said. A hospital official, who asked not to be further identified for safety reasons, said that one protester died and a second suffered serious injury.

The violence could fuel a separatist movement seeking a return of the independence that southern Yemen enjoyed until 1990.

In the capital, Sanaa, several hundred protesters clashed with government loyalists and police as they tried to march from Sanaa University to Saleh's residence.

Several hundred mostly young demonstrators also marched in the highlands city of Taiz, where some 20 held a sit-in in the main square.

"We started to demand reforms, but now we are demanding the toppling of the regime," Ghazi Assami, a lawyer and opposition activist, said by telephone.

Saleh, who has presided over an authoritarian regime for 32 years, blamed the protests in Yemen and Bahrain on a foreign plot.

"There are schemes aimed at plunging the region into chaos and violence," Saleh was quoted by the state-run Saba news agency as saying in a telephone conversation with Bahrain's King Khalifa.

The protests don't threaten Saleh's grip on power. They are largely leaderless and involve mostly students, human rights activists and other members of the impoverished, deeply conservative nation's tiny educated class.

There are concerns, however, that the demonstrations could become a vehicle by which ordinary citizens could vent their ire with Yemen's myriad problems, from corruption to grinding poverty. The country is awash in guns.

Saleh also confronts an insurgency by a Shiite Muslim sect in the north, the southern secessionist movement and a growing presence of an al Qaida affiliate that he's battling with U.S. assistance.

(Landay and Strobel reported from Washington, Bengali from Cairo. McClatchy special correspondent Nasser Arrabyee in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this article.)


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