CAIRO (IPS) - Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi has unleashed the bloodiest crackdown so far against pro-democracy protesters seeking his ouster, killing dozens of people in only four days of protests.
On Sunday the unrest spread to capital Tripoli from the eastern port city Benghazi.
Libyan Internet activists have denounced the international community’s failure to act over the “massacres” in Libya.
The Cairo-based Arab Organization for Human Rights has decried the use of violence against the protestors in Libya and called for an international investigation. The Vienna-based Friends of Humanity said the Libyan regime’s onslaught was tantamount to “war crimes.”
There are conflicting reports on the death toll as of 20 February but it is generally believed to be in the hundreds now.
Human Rights Watch reports that 173 people have died. The London-based private newspaper Libya Al-Youm quoted a local doctor as saying that 285 people died in the eastern city of Benghazi alone.
According to an eyewitness who spoke to Al Jazeera by telephone, some 300 persons have been killed in Benghazi, the country’s second largest city.
The crackdown by Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya since 1969, threatens to make the revolt the most costly in terms of human lives and bloodshed in the wave of demonstrations sweeping across the region for greater freedoms.
Gaddafi, trying to stave off the fate of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt who were removed from power after facing similar protests, has resorted to much harsher military tactics than those used in uprisings in neighboring Egypt or Tunisia.
His tactics include cutting off food, fuel and medical supplies as well as electricity to revolting cities. The regime also cut off most communications to try to make sure the unrest does not spread to other cities. But the move failed to prevent protests erupting in capital Tripoli on Sunday.
Pan-Arab news outlets report that Gaddafi’s troops have used live ammunition and heavy military equipment such as anti-tank missiles in Benghazi. Late on Sunday fierce clashes were being reported in Tripoli.
Libya Al-Youm reported on its website on Sunday that the regime was using “heavy weapons” and shooting at random.
The newspaper also carried a call for urgent supplies for Benghazi hospitals including blood.
“Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces are firing on Libyan citizens and killing scores simply because they’re demanding change and accountability,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
On top of its military response, the Gaddafi regime is trying to paint the revolt as a foreign plot to destabilize the country — a tool used by many other Arab regimes. After a long history of colonization by Western powers and by Israel, Arab people are deeply mistrustful of foreign interference.
The official Libyan News Agency (JANA) reported Sunday that the government was fighting an Israeli-inspired scheme to create anarchy in the country. It said that there were no genuine popular grievances behind the protests.
Israel is financing “separation” forces in the Arab region, JANA added.
Al-Shams newspaper, which is controlled by an arm of the information ministry in Tripoli, reported online that the government has exposed “foreign network elements” in several Libyan cities.
But online posts by Libyans and anti-Gaddafi demonstrators show that the protestors want regime change and democracy.
Most of the uprising has so far centered around Eastern cities, especially the Mediterranean city of Benghazi. Protests were also reported in Baida, Ajdabiya, Zawiya and Derna before spreading to Tripoli.
The protests started 17 February after Internet activists called for a “Day of Rage” against political and economic conditions for Libyans under Gaddafi.
On Sunday, the website LibyaFeb17.com carried tweets and posts condemning the global indifference over the harsh tactics by Gaddafi’s troops.
“It is precisely this silence that is a very serious issue in this terrifying situation,” said one post.
The post came after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Saturday he will not “bother” Gaddafi over the violent incidents.
In 2009, the Libyan government invested in Eni, an Italian oil company that has been operating in Libya since 1959. Eni is Libya’s largest foreign oil producer.
Britain had said on Friday it was revoking arms export licenses for Libya and Bahrain, another Arab country whose government is fighting popular protests. The ban will limit tear gas and ammunition sales that could be used to suppress protests.
Gaddafi had tried earlier to appear unruffled over the removal of two of his erstwhile allies, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.
The state-sponsored Al-Jamahiriya TV, beamed via satellite to Arab countries, aired live interviews with officials and pundits calling for calm and “opening a dialogue.”
The officials explained that the government was spending “hundreds of millions” of dollars on making Libyans’ life better through investing in infrastructure, roads, schools and universities.
Libya’s Al-Jamahiriya 2 was airing songs praising Gaddafi and eulogizing his achievements. But the violent reaction is seen as an indication of the threat Gaddafi perceives.
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