Alarm mounts over Libya crackdown

Andrew Woodcock,Pa
Sunday 20 February 2011 11:34

International concern was mounting today about the violent crackdown on protests in Libya, amid reports that the number of demonstrators killed by Muammar Gaddafi's security forces was approaching 100.

Medical officials in Libya's second city of Benghazi said 15 people died when troops opened fire on mourners leaving a funeral for protesters killed in earlier clashes.

Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday voiced Britain's revulsion at the "unacceptable and horrifying" violence meted out by Gaddafi's loyalists, who are said to have used Kalashnikovs, knives and even anti-aircraft missiles to quell demonstrations.

Internet services have been shut down throughout the north African state, where journalists' movements are strictly controlled, and only patchy reports have emerged of events over the three days of protests.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch organisation estimated the death toll was at least 84 by Friday and the killings at yesterday's funeral have brought the figure up to 104.

Reports suggested that mourners were killed by shots to the head and chest, while one was apparently hit by an anti-aircraft missile.

Scores of others were injured after the regime sent in commandos, mercenaries and helicopters in what has been the most brutal response to the wave of unrest sweeping across the Arab world.

Gaddafi's son Saadi is understood to have led the crackdown in Benghazi against protesters calling for an end to his father's 42-year autocratic rule.

Clashes on a smaller scale were also reported yesterday in Yemen and Algeria.

But in Bahrain, chanting demonstrators flooded back into Pearl Square unopposed after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa ordered troops off the streets and offered dialogue with all of the Gulf state's communities.

Mr Hague welcomed the developments when he spoke to Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman by phone yesterday.

While expressing "deep concern" about the earlier use of live ammunition by Bahraini troops against protesters, the Foreign Secretary said he "strongly supported" Salman's efforts to initiate a national dialogue and called on all sides to respond to the offer.

On the situation in Libya, Mr Hague said: "I condemn the violence in Libya, including reports of the use of heavy weapons fire and a unit of snipers against demonstrators. This is clearly unacceptable and horrifying.

"I call on the authorities to stop using force and to rein back the army in confronting the demonstrators. The absence of TV cameras does not mean the attention of the world should not be focused on the actions of the Libyan government."

The Foreign Office is advising against all but essential travel to the cities of Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Al-Bayda, Al-Marj, Derna and Tobruk in eastern Libya, where the protests have been concentrated.

Eight licences for arms exports to Libya have been revoked by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said Britain should "speak out against violence, speak up for human rights in all countries and make clear that moves towards democracy are the best guarantee of long-term stability".

Mr Alexander added: "Some of the scenes we have witnessed from Libya have been horrific and we should not forget that many more incidents are likely to have gone unreported.

"The authorities in Bahrain need to start listening to the legitimate demands of the protesters and accelerate the process of reform."

Louis Susman, the US ambassador to London, said he hoped there would be an international reassessment of recent moves to restore relations with Libya in the light of the "horrendous" violence of the past few days.

Britain has come under fire in America for its normalisation of relations with the Gaddafi regime, particularly over the return to Libya of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Mr Susman told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show: "I can't say, and I wouldn't say, what the British Government should do or shouldn't do."

But he added: "I would suggest to you that to deal with him, to give him greater stature, greater ability on the world front to look like he is a good citizen is a mistake.

"I would hope that the whole concept of how people deal with Gaddafi will be under review."

But Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke told the programme: "I don't think we've made a mistake in having investment there.

"Everybody is appalled to see a dictatorship getting its troops to fire on unarmed demonstrators and the British are obviously in favour of democratic, liberal politics all over the globe, wherever the people locally adopt it.

"We normalised to a certain extent under the previous government relations with Libya, but that doesn't mean we don't welcome genuine moves towards more open, liberal, democratic societies.

"We are not closely aligned with Gaddafi, nor do I or any other member of the Government approve of the dictatorship. We join international opinion in hoping we get peace, stability, we don't have violence against unarmed people."

Mr Susman said he believed US President Barack Obama's phone call to King Hamad on Friday was "helpful" in encouraging the restoration of peace on the streets of Bahrain.

The ambassador said: "We did intervene in Bahrain. The President spoke to the King and told him that we didn't favour violence and strong repression.

"Our position is very clear. We are for democracy, we are for freedom of assembly, for non-violence and people have a right to have their voice heard on what their reforms are.

"That's a clear policy that both President Obama and Secretary (Hillary) Clinton have put forward."

Mr Susman acknowledged that US influence on Libya was less likely to bear fruit than in Bahrain, pointing out that "we are not going to be able to call him (Gaddafi)".

But he said the US would join the international community in seeking to put pressure on Tripoli to cease violence.

Mr Susman brushed off suggestions that the so-called "Arab spring" would harm US relations with countries where it had previously been accused of propping up authoritarian regimes, saying: "I would hope that our relationships with those countries as allies, no matter what government eventually comes forward, will continue. We have mutual interests."

It did not appear that the protests were motivated by religious extremism or opposition towards Israel, he said.

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