PARIS - Anti-government protests inspired by popular revolts that toppled rulers in Tunisia and Egypt are gaining pace around the Middle East and North Africa despite political and economic concessions by nervous governments. (Scroll down for live updates.)
Clashes were reported in tightly controlled oil producer Libya, sandwiched between Egypt and Tunisia, while new protests erupted in Bahrain, Yemen and Iran on Wednesday.
The latest demonstrations against long-serving rulers came after U.S. President Barack Obama, commenting on the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, declared: "The world is changing...if you are governing these countries, you've got to get out ahead of change, you can't be behind the curve."
With young people able to watch pro-democracy uprisings in other countries on satellite television or the Internet, and to communicate with like-minded activists on social networks hard for the secret police to control, governments across the region have grounds to fear contagion.
Hundreds of opponents of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in power since 1969, clashed with police and government supporters in the eastern city of Benghazi overnight, a witness and local media said.
Reports from the port city, 1,000 km (600 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, said protesters armed with stones and petrol bombs set fire to vehicles and fought with police in a rare outbreak of unrest in the oil-exporting country.
The riot in Libya's second city was sparked by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel, who has worked to free political prisoners, Quryna newspaper said.
Gaddafi's opponents used the Facebook social network to call for protests across Libya on Thursday.
In a possible concession to the protesters, Libya will free 110 members of the banned militant organization the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group from Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim prison on Wednesday, another human rights activist said.
POLITICAL, ECONOMIC CONCESSIONS
In Yemen, a 21-year old protester died from gunshot wounds after fierce clashes broke out between police and demonstrators in the southern port town of Aden, his father said, as unrest spread across the Arabian Peninsula state.
Mohammed Ali Alwani was among two people hit as police fired shots into the air to try to break up around 500 protesters.
In the Yemeni capital Sanaa at least 800 anti-government protesters marched against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda.
In power for more than 30 years, Saleh has pledged to step down when his term expires in 2013 and offered dialogue with the opposition, but radical protesters are demanding he go now.
In Bahrain, protesters poured into the capital of the Gulf island kingdom, Manama, for a third successive day to mourn a demonstrator killed in clashes with security forces on Tuesday.
The emirate has a history of protest over economic hardship, the lack of political freedom and sectarian discrimination by the Sunni rulers against the Shi'ite majority.
Some 2,000 protesters demanding a change of government were encamped at a major road junction in Manama, seeking to emulate rallies on Cairo's Tahrir Square that toppled Mubarak.
In Iran, supporters and opponents of the hardline Islamic system clashed in Tehran during a funeral procession for a student shot at an anti-government rally two days ago, state broadcaster IRIB reported.
Both sides claimed Sanee Zhaleh was a martyr to their cause and blamed the other for his death.
Monday's rallies in Tehran and several other Iranian cities were the first staged by the Green pro-democracy movement since security forces crushed huge protests in the months after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election.
Rulers in several countries, drawing lessons from events in Tunisia and Egypt, have announced political changes and moved to cut prices of basic foodstuffs and raise spending on job creation in efforts to pre-empt spreading unrest.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised to lift a 19-year-old state of emergency soon and has acted to reduce the cost of staple foods in the North African oil and gas exporter.
Authorities deployed an estimated 30,000 police in Algiers on Saturday to prevent a banned pro-democracy march. Several hundred protesters defied the ban and dozens were detained.
A coalition of civil society and human rights groups and an opposition party vowed afterwards to demonstrate every Saturday until the military-backed government is removed.
Morocco, where the main banned Islamist opposition movement warned last week that "autocracy" would be swept away unless there were deep democratic reforms, announced on Tuesday it would almost double state subsidies to counter an increase in commodity prices and address social needs.
Syria, controlled by the Baath Party for the last 50 years, released a veteran Islamist activist on Tuesday after he went on hunger strike following his arrest 11 days ago for calling for Egyptian-style mass protests, human rights activists said.
Jordan's King Abdullah has sacked his prime minister and appointed a new government led by a former general who promised to widen public freedom in response to anti-government protests.
Countries with oil and gas wealth such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria appear better placed than poorer countries like Egypt and Tunisia to buy social peace.
Follow the latest updates below.
03/11/2011 6:31 PM EST
U.S. Extends Sanctions On Libya
Reports the AP:
The Obama administration extended its Libya sanctions to more Gadhafi family members and close advisers on Thursday, blacklisting business with the Libyan leader's wife, four of his children and his chief of military intelligence.
The Treasury Department froze the assets of nine Libyans in all as part of the strategy to peel off Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers while punishing those who remain loyal to the regime even as it commits human rights violations.
The sanctions come on top of those previously announced by the administration, which accounted for $32 billion in Libyan government assets blocked in the United States.
03/11/2011 5:33 PM EST
Sarkozy Calls For Air Strikes If Gaddafi Attacks Civilians
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for airstrikes against Gaddafi forces if the leader attacks civilians. According to the Guardian:
Nicolas Sarkozy has called for targeted air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime if his forces use chemical weapons or launch air strikes against civilians.
As the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, warned that a no-fly zone could risk civilian lives in Libya, the French president told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes may soon be justified.
"The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters," Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".
03/11/2011 5:06 PM EST
Dutch Helicopter Crew Freed
A Dutch helicopter crew taken captive in Libya has been freed and sent to Greece. The BBC is reporting:
The two men and one woman arrived in Athens on a Greek military transport plane hours after a son of Muammar Gaddafi announced their release.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said Libya would hold on to the crew's Lynx helicopter.
The woman pilot, Yvonne Niersman, took part in a mission last year to free a German ship from Somali pirates.
Ms Niersman and her fellow crew members were captured in Libya after flying in from the Dutch warship Tromp, anchored off the coast.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 4:43 PM EST
McCain Praises Moroccan King
Senator John McCain praised Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his pledge to introduce democratic reforms. According to the AFP:
"This new reform agenda builds on the king's long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain.
03/11/2011 3:40 PM EST
Gaddafi Offers Amnesty To Rebels
Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi is now offering to offer amnesty to those rebels who lay own arms.
03/11/2011 3:28 PM EST
2 Protesters Killed In Tunisia
The AP reports:
Tunisia's Interior Ministry says a new eruption of violence between police and protesters has killed two people and injured 20.
The ministry says on its Facebook page that police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs.
The statement says two protesters were killed in the incident in Metlaoui, a mining town in the center of the Mediterranean country.
The violence comes as Tunisia's interim government is trying to restore stability after deadly protests that drove out longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That prompted uprisings around the Arab world.
03/11/2011 2:39 PM EST
Berlusconi Says Hardline With Gaddafi A Mistake
Berlusconi is saying that the West may have made a mistake by taking a hardline against Gaddafi, which may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner. Reports Reuters:
The hardline stance taken by major powers against Muammar Gaddafi may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner and prevented a quiet exit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday. Speaking after a special meeting of EU leaders, Berlusconi, one of Gaddafi's closest friends in Europe until the current upheaval, said the chances of persuading him to give up power voluntarily now appeared to have disappeared.
"Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don't think anyone can make him change his mind," he told reporters.
Read the entire report here.
03/11/2011 2:16 PM EST
Who Are The Libyan Rebels?
The AP is reporting that the rebels fighting Gaddafi forces are amateurs, but deeply committed to the cause:
Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country's Mediterranean coast.
"I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar," said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.
The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.
Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.
03/11/2011 1:03 PM EST
Gaddafi Forces Show Signs Of Victory
Reports the AP:
Moammar Gadhafi's regime has gained momentum with the capture of a key city near Tripoli after days of fierce fighting with rebels.
The battle for Zawiya has emerged as a key test in the government's ability to maintain its hold on the Libyan capital and surrounding areas.
The government had claimed victory on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was escorted with other journalists into the city on Friday, says the main square that had been the center of resistance is clearly in government control.
03/11/2011 12:47 PM EST
Obama On Libya
Obama noted all of the sanctions and property seizures that have already been implemented against Gaddafi, saying, "Across the board, we are tightening the noose on Gaddafi." He says that NATO is discussing potential military actions in Libya, including a no-fly zone, and will meet on Tuesday. He said that a position will be created for a liaison to speak with Libyan opposition groups. He said that the international community had moved quickly to isolate Gaddafi.
Obama said that no options have been taken off the table so far. In response to a question about whether it would ever be acceptable to the U.S. for Gaddafi to stay in power, Obama stated that "it is in the U.S.' interest and the interest of the Libyan people for Gaddafi to leave." He added, however, that when making a decision to engage militarily, he would weigh the "costs and benefits."
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