CAIRO — Security forces opened fire to disperse crowds in Libya and Yemen as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets Friday across the Middle East, hoping to oust longtime leaders as in Tunisia and Egypt, or simply to bring about more political reforms.
(SCROLL DOWN FOR LIVE UPDATES.)
The biggest demonstrations were in Yemen, where tens of thousands of people rallied in several cities – including the capital of Sanaa – calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the campaign against al-Qaida. He has promised to step down after national elections in 2013, an offer rejected by the opposition.
At least four people were killed and seven wounded when Yemeni soldiers armed with heavy machine guns shot at protesters throwing rocks at their army post in the northern town of Harf Sofyan. A witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal, said the soldiers apparently believed the protesters were trying to attack the post.
For the first time in Yemen, the protesters included hundreds of women, filling a square and nearby streets. The main speaker during prayers at Sanaa University, Yahia Hussein al-Deilami, told the gathering that "deposing a tyrant is a religious duty."
In the southern city of Aden, tens of thousands of people carried the coffins of three people killed last week.
In Libya's capital of Tripoli, more than 1,500 protesters marched from a mosque after noon prayers in the eastern district of Tajoura, chanting for the end of Moammar Gadhafi's regime and waving the red, black and green flag of the monarchy that predated his rule. Pro-Gadhafi forces quickly moved in, firing volleys of tear gas and – when the marchers continued – live ammunition, witnesses said.
It was not clear if they fired at the crowd or into the air, but the protesters scattered, many of them taking refuge back in the mosque, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. A doctor said several people were wounded and taken to a hospital.
Last week, Friday marches were met by barrages of gunfire from militiamen shooting into crowds, killing a still undetermined number. Since then, pro-Gadhafi forces have carried out a wave of arrests against suspected demonstrators, instilling fear in the most restive neighborhoods.
The fall of other parts of Libya to rebels has made control of the capital crucial for Gadhafi. His loyalists have taken fierce action to ensure protesters cannot rise up and overwhelm the city as they have in other places.
Protests following Friday prayers have become a weekly tradition throughout the Middle East and North Africa as activists seek to emulate successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Egypt's prime minister-designate, Essam Sharaf, appeared before thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square and pledged to do everything he could to meet their demands for political change.
"I draw will and determination from here," he told the estimated 10,000 demonstrators. "I will do my utmost to realize your demands," he said, pledging to step down if he fails.
Sharaf, who was carried into the square on protesters' shoulders, was picked by Egypt's military rulers on Thursday to replace Ahmed Shafiq – the last premier to be named by Hosni Mubarak before he was ousted. Sharaf also pleaded with protesters to turn their attention to rebuilding the country. Sharaf's government will serve in a caretaker capacity until parliamentary elections are held.
The military rulers who took control of the country from Mubarak also said a referendum on constitutional changes to allow for competitive parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on March 19.
Thousands of Iraqis rallied in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country in demonstrations that defied security checkpoints and a vehicle ban that forced many to walk for hours to the heart of the capital.
It was the second Friday in a row of Iraqi demonstrations – a show of force that has unnerved Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which is worried that the turmoil in the rest of the region has come to Iraq. Most of the protests were peaceful, but police used water cannons against demonstrators in the southern city of Basra and beat some journalists who were covering.
The protesters are demanding improved government services, better pay and an end to corruption in Iraq – reflecting the level of unhappiness many Iraqis feel nearly eight years after Saddam Hussein's ouster.
In Bahrain, thousands of protesters chanting slogans against the Sunni dynasty streamed toward state TV headquarters after sectarian clashes between Sunnis and the majority Shiites who led the demonstration in the strategic Gulf nation. Some women carried roses and placed them on the wall outside the TV compound.
The street fighting late Thursday was brief, but it underscored the tensions building after nearly three weeks of unrest that has left the tiny island kingdom in a stalemate between the Sunni monarchy and Shiite-led demonstrators who claim widespread discrimination and demand a greater voice in the nation's affairs.
In Jordan's capital of Amman, political opponents amplified their calls for the new prime minister to resign and demanded to be brought into a unity government to usher in swift reforms to open up the kingdom's politics.
Jordanians have held protests every Friday for more than two months to demand a greater political voice and action to reduce swelling poverty and unemployment. The weekly demonstrations have largely been peaceful and have not reached the level of violence seen elsewhere in the region, but tempers are flaring.
"Enough is enough, our patience has run out," shouted political independent Sufian Tal, reflecting the views of many among the 2,000 Jordanians who took to the streets.
The U.S.-allied King Abdullah II so far has not faced calls for his ouster, but protesters want him to give up the power to appoint the prime minister and the rest of the Cabinet.
Tunisia's new premier said he will present a new Cabinet in the coming days to help get beyond the renewed bout of violence in the North African country that led his predecessor to quit, and pull his country back from the "abyss."
Beji Caid-Essebsi's announcement is the latest step by Tunisia's interim leaders to stabilize the country after longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled amid protests in January – sparking unrest across the Arab world.
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."