Terror in Tripoli as pressure builds in Yemen

Posted at 02/26/11 11:18 PM

TRIPOLI – Terrified Libyans braced for battles on Saturday as Moammar Gaddafi offered to arm civilian supporters to defeat a revolt and powerful tribes abandoned Yemen's increasingly embattled ruler.

The escalating revolt against Gaddafi, which one of his diplomats to the United Nations said killed thousands, has emboldened tens of thousands of protesters across the Arab world to step up demands for historic reforms.

After protests in Tunisia and Egypt forced out longtime leaders Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, Libya's Gaddafi and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh are facing the most serious threats to their decades' grip on power.

"We could still hear gunfire all night," one Tripoli resident told AFP by telephone on Saturday, saying that electricity had been cut overnight.

"We were terrified. We thought that meant they were preparing for attacks. We grabbed whatever we could use as weapons and stayed by the door in case anyone broke in," the resident said.

In a rabble-rousing speech that presaged a bloody battle for the capital, Gaddafi told frenzied supporters in Tripoli's Green Square on Friday that the rebels would be defeated.

"We will fight them and we will beat them," he told a crowd of hundreds.

"Sing, dance and prepare yourselves," the 68-year-old leader said. "If needs be, we will open all the arsenals."

Almost the entire east of the oil-rich North African nation has slipped from Gaddafi's control since the popular uprising began in the port city of Benghazi on February 15, inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose country is the former colonial power in Libya, became the first Western leader to spell out that Gaddafi appeared to have lost control of the situation.

In Benghazi, a spokesman for the revolution told AFP on Saturday they were drawing up plans for a transitional government to take power but in the nearby town of Ajdabiya, local residents said food was becoming scarce.

US President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Gaddafi and four of his sons in a clear attempt to weaken his teetering regime and the UN Security Council was to hold a special meeting later Saturday to consider sanctions.

Protests sweeping the Middle East have railed against poor public infrastructure and demanded broader political reforms in some of the most corrupt and tightly censored countries in the world.

In Yemen, pressure on Saleh to resign intensified as the leaders of two of the country's most powerful tribes joined the anti-regime movement, one day after the biggest protests yet against the government.

The Hashid and Baqil announced they would support the popular uprising at a large gathering of tribesmen north of the capital, greeted by chants of "the people want the fall of the regime!"

Nineteen people have died in near daily clashes since February 16. Most of the unrest has been concentrated in the southern city of Aden, which some residents fear has become the frontline in a state-sponsored war.

A Yemeni official, however denied that police were responsible for a raid that killed four people, instead blaming the violence on armed separatists.

In Bahrain, opposition leader Hassan Mashaima arrived Saturday in Manama, a day after he was arrested in Lebanon on his way to join anti-government protests, an AFP correspondent said.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied for a 13th day in Manama to demand the Sunni ruling family stand down in the Shiite majority Gulf state, upping pressure on the government one day after tens of thousands flooded the streets.

"Leave Hamad, leave Hamad" and "Down Hamad, down Hamad," chanted the flag-waving demonstrators as they poured out of Pearl Square, referring to the king.

In Iraq, which saw its first significant protests in a "Day of Rage" that left 16 people dead on Friday, the country's top Shiite Muslim cleric called on politicians to slash their benefits and improve public services.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said that the government had made progress but called on leaders to "cancel unacceptable benefits" given to politicians and said they must "not invent unnecessary government positions".

In Tunisia, security forces fired tear gas to disperse about 300 protesters chanting anti-government slogans at a fresh demonstration outside the interior ministry on Saturday, an AFP reporter said.

The rally followed clashes between police and protesters in the same location on Friday that the ministry said left 21 police officers injured and three police stations damaged.

Egypt's ruling military council on Saturday apologised after military police beat protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square overnight, saying that "all measures will be taken to ensure this will not happen again."

Jordan's opposition movement threatened to up the pressure on the government, which it accuses of not taking reforms seriously, amid a debate over whether the sweeping changes they demand could destabilise the country.

In Algeria, several hundred riot police were out in force to block a new attempt to stage an anti-government march in the capital, two days after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's regime lifted a state of emergency.

In Qatar, a Facebook page demanding the ouster of the pro-Western emir, accusing him of being an agent of Israel, had attracted 18,262 fans in the latest web-driven push for change in the Arab world.

It is apparently the first call for change in the gas-rich state since popular revolts began sweeping the Arab world.