By ANTHONY SHADID
Published: February 18, 2011
CAIRO — Thousands gathered Friday for a third day of violent demonstrations in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, in an unprecedented challenge to the mercurial 41-year reign of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Human rights groups said 24 people had been killed across the North African country, though activists say the count may be far higher.
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The escalating unrest bears the hallmarks of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, as protesters copy slogans heard there. But as in Bahrain and Iran, the police and the army have moved quickly to crush unrest. Residents say the government has mobilized young civilian supporters in the capital and other towns and deployed foreign mercenaries in eastern Libya, long the most restive region.
Libya demonstrates both the power and the limits of the Arab uprisings. The country, though the most isolated in the region, is not disconnected enough to black out the news of autocrats falling in two of its immediate neighbors. But information about what is happening inside Libya — and the ability of protesters to mobilize world opinion on their behalf — is far more limited.
A refrain of opposition leaders was that the world was failing to act, even as they sought to post videos, statements and testimony on social networking sites with mixed success.
“The international community is watching,” said Issa Abdel Majeed Mansour, an opposition figure based in Oslo. “Why isn’t anyone helping us?”
As the Libyan clashes worsened, a violent crackdown continued in Bahrain on Friday, where government forces opened fire on hundreds of mourners marching toward Pearl Square and at least one helicopter sprayed fire on peaceful protesters. There were also violent confrontations on Friday in Yemen and Jordan.
Since seizing power in a coup in 1969, Colonel Qaddafi has imposed his idiosyncratic rule on Libya, one of the world’s biggest exporters of oil. With a population of just 6.4 million, the country is one of the region’s wealthiest, though eastern Libya and Benghazi have witnessed periodic uprisings. Tripoli, the capital, has also had sporadic protests but remains firmly in the government’s grip, residents say.
“I don’t see them being easily overpowered, especially at this point, because of the powers of the Libyan security forces and their tendency to crack down very brutally on protests,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in contact with residents in Libya. “I’m not saying it will never happen, but it won’t happen today.”
Residents reached by telephone said the most intense unrest was in Benghazi and Bayda, a city about 125 miles to the northeast. As many as 15,000 people gathered in front of the courthouse in Benghazi on Friday, and security forces withdrew from at least part of the city by the afternoon, residents said. The residents saw the withdrawal as a sign of withering authority.
“Security has retreated to allow the protesters to march because the masses are in a state of extreme anger,” said one of the protesters, Idris Ahmed al-Agha, a writer and activist. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think it’s going to escalate.”
In the background, demonstrators’ chants could be heard. “The people want to topple the government!” they cried, an expression first heard in protests in Tunisia, then picked up by the demonstrators in Cairo’s uprising.
Judging by funerals and residents’ accounts, Mr. Agha put the toll at 50 in Benghazi. Other opposition activists said 60 had died there and dozens more in Bayda, though Libya’s isolation made the numbers difficult to verify. Citing doctors’ reports in Benghazi, Samira Boussalma, a member of Amnesty International’s North Africa team, said a majority of those killed were shot in the head and the chest. An opposition figure, citing a source at the Jalaa Hospital there, said that most of the dead were 13 to 36 years old and that as many as 50 people had been wounded.
Opposition groups said protesters had wrested control of several towns, including Bayda and Darnah, a northeastern port, though the degree of their authority seemed ambiguous. They said several police stations had been burned across Libya, and Mr. Agha said a military building was attacked in Benghazi.
In Kufrah, an oasis town in Libya’s southeast, protests were planned after Friday Prayer, but security forces deployed outside mosques, forbade demonstrations, then allowed worshipers to leave one by one, said Badawi Altobawi, an activist there.
He said the military had deployed in force to counter a second day of demonstrations, where protesters chanted Thursday, “Long live a free Libya.”