Protesters Retake Square in Bahrain While Libya and Yemen Try to Suppress Protests

Saturday, 19 February 2011 11:40 By Michael Slackman and Jack Healy, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Protesters Retake Square in Bahrain While Libya and Yemen Try to Suppress Protests
Protesters wave the Bahraini flag and cheer as they celebrate the retaking of Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain, February 19, 2011. (Photo: Andrea Bruce / The New York Times)

Manama, Bahrain - Thousands of jubilant protesters surged back into the symbolic heart of Bahrain on Saturday after government security forces withdrew and the monarchy called for peace after two days of violent crackdowns.

It was a remarkable turn after a week of protests that had shifted by the hour between joy and fear, euphoric surges of popular uprising followed by bloody military crackdowns, as the monarchy struggled to calibrate a response to an uprising whose counterparts have toppled other governments in the region.

“All Bahrain is happy today,’’ said Jasim Al Haiki, 24, as he cheered the crowds in the central Pearl Square, aflutter with Bahraini flags. “These are Bahrainis. They do what they say they will do!”

The withdrawal of security forces in Bahrain was a victory for the country’s main Shiite opposition bloc, which had rejected a call to negotiate from Bahrain’s Sunni monarch until the authorities pulled the military off the streets. It also added new pressures for shaken governments in Libya, Algeria and Yemen as they made new moves to stifle protests.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is also deputy commander of the military, announced in a statement that he had ordered the withdrawal of all military from the streets of Bahrain “with immediate effect,” adding that the Bahrain police force would continue to oversee law and order.

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Bahrain, a small island in the Gulf, is a strategically important ally of the United States and home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

In Libya, demonstrations on Saturday continued to challenge the 41-year rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The country moved to shut off Internet access, mirroring a tactic used by Egyptian authorities to try to thwart an upheaval that eventually led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said that the death toll in Libya after three days of government crackdowns against protesters had risen to 84. .

Thousands of demonstrators gathered again Saturday at a courthouse in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and a fulcrum for protests there. One activist, Idris Ahmed al-Agha, a Libyan writer reached by telephone, said the crowd had grown to more than 20,000 by mid-day Saturday. He said protesters planned a funeral march to bury some of those killed in pitched clashes on Friday.

Occasional uprisings have shaken Benghazi and eastern Libya, where Colonel Gadhafi’s writ still runs broad but not as deep as in the capital, Tripoli, in the west. Mr. Agha said security forces had not returned to parts of the city after withdrawing Friday. Even traffic police have disappeared from some streets, leaving residents to direct cars, he said.

The unrest in Benghazi appeared to grow out of the long-simmering repercussions of the killings of hundreds of prisoners in 1996 in the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. Some of the families have refused government compensation for the deaths of their relatives and have organized occasional demonstrations to press for more information.

Others joined their protest Friday at the courthouse in Benghazi and, by the end of the day, the crowd had grown into the thousands, said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

In Algiers, hundreds of baton-wielding police pushed back demonstrators protesting the government of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s 73-year-old autocratic leader.

Riot police in unyielding lines repeatedly forced the hundreds of demonstrators into smaller groups, shoving some down side streets and pushing others up a main artery until they dispersed, in a working-class district near the city center.

Protesters held up signs reading “Bouteflika, get out,” and chanted, in Arabic and French, “We’re sick of this government.” But they were overwhelmed by the massed police, who beat their plastic shields with thick truncheons as they surged forward against the crowd, which broke up barely two hours after the start of the planned march.

Long lines of armored police trucks surrounded the headquarters of the opposition RCD party nearby, and police were posted at intersections throughout the seaside capital.

Many of the demonstrators said they were angered by the massive police presence at what they insisted was a peaceful march in a country where elections are widely seen as rigged, the military holds real power and antigovernment demonstrations like the one Saturday are prohibited.

“We are simply asking for what the other countries are asking for,” said Mohamed Ditabshish, a retired civil servant. “Independence is not enough. We need liberty as well. We are independent, but not free.”

Last Saturday, thousands of security forces massed in the capital to stifle a planned protest. Unlike some of its regional neighbors, the country had been relatively quiet this past week. In Yemen, about 1,000 protesters demanding the ouster of President Saleh gathered for another day in Sana, the capital, squaring off against pro-government demonstrators, who held posters of Mr. Saleh The pro-government group moved closer, and the two sides began hurling bottles, shoes and rocks at each other, even as some antigovernment protesters called out, “Be peaceful!”

The pro-government demonstrators fell back, but then a larger group returned, firing automatic weapons, at first into the air, and then at the antigovernment marchers. One man fell into the street and was carried away by other demonstrators, his chest covered in blood.

The antigovernment marchers scattered as the pro-Saleh group took control of the street, celebrating their victory by chanting, dancing and waving their jambiyas, Yemen’s traditional curved daggers.

Michael Slackman reported from Manama, Bahrain, and Jack Healy from Baghdad. Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Algiers; Laura Kasinof from Sana, Yemen; Anthony Shadid from Beiru, and Timothy Williams from New York. 

This article "Protesters Retake Square in Bahrain While Libya and Yemen Try to Supress Protests" originally appeared at The New York Times. 

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Last modified on Saturday, 19 February 2011 17:51