Libya, Yemen crack down; Bahrain pulls back tanks

CAIRO — Security forces fired on pro-democracy demonstrators Saturday in Libya and Yemen as the two hard-line regimes struck back against the wave of protests that has already toppled autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia. At least 15 died when police shot into crowds of mourners in Libya’s second la

rgest city, a hospital official said.

Bahrain’s royal family bowed to international pressure, however, and pulled tanks off the street to allow protesters to camp once again in a central square.

Libyans returned to the street for a fifth straight day of protest against Gadhafi’s 42-yea

r grip on power despite estimates by human rights groups of 84 deaths in the North African country — with 35 on Friday alone.

But snipers fired on thousands of mourners in Benghazi, a focal point of unrest, as they attended the funerals of other protesters, a hospital official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Before dawn, special forces had attacked hundreds of demonstrators, including lawyers and judges, who were camped out in front of a courthouse in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city.

“They fired tear gas on protesters in tents and cleared the areas after many fled carrying the dead and the injured,” one demonstrator said by phone.

Authorities cut off the Internet across Libya, further isolating the country. Just after 2 a.m. local time in Libya, the U.S.-based Arbor Networks security company detected a total cessation of online traffic. Protesters confirmed they could not get online.

Information is tightly controlled in Libya,where journalists cannot work freely, and activists this week have posted videos on the Internet that have been an important source of images of the revolt. Other information about the protests has come from opposition activists in exile.

Gadhafi is facing the biggest popular uprising of his autocratic reign, with much of the action in the country’s impoverished east. He’s responded forcefully.

A female protester in Tripoli, the capital city to the west, said it was much harder to demonstrate there. Police were out in force and Gadhafi was greeted rapturously when he drove through town in a motorcade on Thursday.

In Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, riot police opened fire on thousands of protesters, killing one anti-government demonstrator and injuring five others on a 10th day of revolt against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally who has been in power for three decades.

As on other days earlier this week, protesters marching from Sanaa’s university were met by police and government supporters with clubs and knives who engaged in a stone-throwing battle with the demonstrators. At one point, police fired in the air to disperse the march.

A medical official said one man was shot in the neck and killed. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The death was the seventh this week in Yemen.

In a meeting with civic leaders, Saleh said Yemenis have the right to express themselves peacefully and that the perpetrators of the unrest were trying to seize power by fomenting instability.

“The homeland is facing a foreign plot that threatens its future,” Saleh said, without elaborating.

Saleh, a key U.S. ally in fighting al-Qaida terrorists, has tried to blunt discontent by promising not to seek re-election when his term ends in 2013.

But he is facing a restless population, with threats from al-Qaida militants who want to oust him, a southern secessionist movement and a sporadic armed rebellion in the north. To try to quell new outbursts of dissent, Saleh pledged to meet some of the protesters’ demands and has reached out to tribal chiefs, who are a major base of support for him.

In the tiny island nation of Bahrain, thousands of joyful protesters streamed back into the capital’s central Pearl Square after the armed forces withdrew from the streets following two straight days of a bloody crackdown by security forces.

The royal family, which was quick to use force earlier this week against demonstrators in the landmark square that has been the heart of the anti-government demonstrations, appeared to back away from further confrontation following international pressure.

President Barack Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the “universal rights” of its people and embrace “meaningful reform.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also expressed his concern about “clearly unacceptable and horrifying” violence against demonstrators in Bahrain. He urged Bahraini authorities to hold accountable those responsible for the deaths in protests there and to halt the intimidation of journalists.

The demonstrators had emulated successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in attempting to bring political change to Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet — the centerpiece of Washington’s efforts to confront Iranian military influence in the region.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, appealed for calm and political dialogue in a brief address on state TV.

As night fell, though, defiant protesters in Pearl Square erected barriers, wired a sound system, set up a makeshift medical tent and deployed lookouts to warn of approaching security forces.

Protesters took over the square earlier in the week, setting up a camp with tents and placards, but they were driven out by riot police in a deadly assault Thursday that killed five people and injured more than 200. The government then clamped down on Manama by sending the tanks and other armored vehicles into the streets around the square, putting up barbed wire and establishing checkpoints to deter gatherings.

On Friday, army units shot at marchers streaming toward the square. More than 50 people were injured in the second consecutive day of clashes.

Some of the protesters were wary of Bahrain’s leaders, despite the military withdrawal.

“Of course we don’t trust them,” said Ahmed al-Shaik, a 23-year-old civil servant. “They will probably attack more and more, but we have no fear now.”

The cries against the king and his inner circle — at a main Shiite mosque and at burials for those killed when security forces attacked a protest camp in Pearl Square — reflected a sharp escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy’s power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority.

The mood, however, has turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the crackdown, which put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roads.

Algerian police, meanwhile, thwarted a rally by thousands of pro-democracy supporters, breaking up the crowd into isolated groups to keep them from marching.

Police brandishing clubs, but no firearms, weaved their way through the crowd in central Algiers, banging their shields, tackling some protesters and keeping traffic flowing through the planned march route.

A demonstrating lawmaker was hospitalized after suffering a head wound when he fell after police kicked and hit him, colleagues said.

The gathering, organized by the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, comes a week after a similar protest, which organizers said brought an estimated 10,000 people and up to 26,000 riot police onto the streets of Algiers. Algeria has also been hit by numerous strikes over the past month.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift the state of emergency, which has been in place since early 1992 to combat a budding insurgency by Islamist extremists. The insurgency, which continues sporadically, has killed an estimated 200,000 people.

Bouteflika has warned, however, that a long-standing ban on protests in Algiers would remain in place, even once the state of emergency is lifted.

Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci, on a visit to Madrid, said in a French radio interview earlier this week that the protesters were only a minority.

“Algeria is not Tunisia. Algeria is not Egypt,” he said in an interview with France’s Europe 1 radio.

Algeria does have many of the ingredients for a popular revolt. It is riddled with corruption and has never successfully grappled with its soaring jobless rate among youth — estimated by some to be up to 42 percent — despite its oil and gas wealth.

“The people are for change, but peacefully,” said sociologist Nasser Djebbi. “We have paid a high price.”

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