Tripoli/ Manama: Libyan security forces shot dead dozens of protesters to try to crush a revolt in the second city Benghazi, and the wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East also pushed Bahrain’s rulers into talks with the opposition.
Anti-government demonstrators in Bahrain camped out overnight in Pearl Square in Manama after putting riot police to flight in a striking victory, confidently setting up camp for a protracted stay.
In Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, a witness told Reuters snipers had fired at protesters from a fortified compound.
“Dozens were killed... We are in the midst of a massacre here,” said the resident, who did not want to be named. The man said he helped take the victims to a local hospital during Saturday’s violence.
The Libyan authorities have not allowed foreign journalists into the country since the protests against Gaddafi erupted, and the witness’ account could not be independently verified.
Human Rights Watch says 84 people have been killed in Libya since the protests began, reflecting the ferocity of the security crackdown mounted in response to anti-government protests that sought to emulate uprisings in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.
Britain’s Independent on Sunday newspapers said the death toll in Benghazi - 1,000 km east of the capital - may be as high as 200. Unverified posts on social network sites referred to minor skirmishes in the capital and of overnight gunfire in Nalut, to the west of Tripoli.
Unrest has also been seen in Yemen, Oman, Kuwait and Djibouti as people took to the streets demanding political and economic change.
Anti-government protests met varying degrees of force in Yemen, Algiers and Djibouti, while an Egyptian court approved a new party in a landmark ruling. Authorities in Saudi Arabia detained activists trying to set up the kingdom’s first political party.
Twitter was abuzz with talk of unrest in Libyan towns other than Benghazi. Reports ranged from the use of mercenaries and aircraft to mortars and artillery against protesters, but with foreign media banned from entering the country, they were impossible to verify.
Internet service has been cut off in Libya, but local Muslim leaders called on soldiers to stop killing fellow Muslims:
“Do NOT kill your brothers and sisters. STOP the massacre NOW!”, urged the appeal, sent to Reuters.
Italy’s Ansa news agency quoted an Italian witness in Benghazi as saying the city was “completely out of control”.
“All the government and institutional buildings and a bank have been burnt, and the rebels have ransacked and destroyed everything. There’s no one on the streets, not even the police,” said the witness, who declined to be identified.
The government has not released casualty figures or made any official comment on the violence.The unrest has helped drive up oil and gold prices.
In Bahrain, a key US ally and home to the US Fifth Fleet, thousands of protesters celebrated as they poured into Pearl Square after riot police pulled out.
“We don’t fear death any more, let the army come and kill us to show the world what kind of savages they are,” said Umm Mohammed, a teacher wearing a black abaya.
Bahrain’s government said it had opened a dialogue with opposition groups demanding reform. The crown prince called for a national day of mourning for the six people killed in this week’s protests and appealed for calm.
“All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table,” Crown Prince Salman told CNN late on Saturday of the dialogue, adding the king had appointed him to lead it and to build trust with all sides.
He had earlier announced that all troops had been ordered off the streets - meeting one of the conditions for talks set out by an ex-lawmaker of the main Shi’ite opposition bloc Wefaq.
The Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa dynasty rules Bahrain, but the Shi’ite majority has long complained about what it sees as discrimination in access to state jobs, housing and healthcare.
“The protesters in Pearl Roundabout represent a very significant proportion of our society and our political belief,” the crown prince told CNN.
“But there are other forces at work here. This is not Egypt and this is not Tunisia. And what we don’t want to do, like in Northern Ireland, is to descend into militia warfare or sectarianism.”
The United States and top oil producer Saudi Arabia see Bahrain as a bulwark against neighbouring Shi’ite Iran.
In Egypt, a court approved the Wasat Party (Centre Party), the first new party to be recognised since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown this month, and an official said there would soon be a limited cabinet reshuffle.
In Yemen, one protester was killed and seven were hurt in clashes with supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa.
Riot police in Algiers meanwhile prevented some 500 protesters marching in through the city centre.
The uprisings sweeping through the region also reached the tiny Horn of Africa state of Djibouti, where three leading opposition politicians were detained on Saturday in a move to quash anti-government protests.
Djibouti, a former French colony between Eritrea and Somalia, hosts France’s largest military base in Africa and a major US base. Its port is used by foreign navies patrolling busy shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia to fight piracy. Unemployment runs at about 60 percent.