Tripoli/Manama/Sana’a, Feb 24 (IANS) Reports of genocide in Libyan towns did the rounds Thursday as Muammar Gaddafi’s troops went on a killing spree to crush the 10-day uprising that seems to have left an estimated 1,000 people or more dead. The Al Qaeda too stepped in to declare its backing for the movement that had its roots in Tunisia and Egypt and has now spread across the Arab world.
As the tension spread not just in Libya but also in Bahrain and Yemen, US crude oil prices zoomed past $100 a barrel.
In Bahrain, opposition parties outlined their key demands as the anti-regime unrest intensified, while Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered the country’s security forces to protect protesters trying to force him out of power and loyalists alike.
In oil-rich Libya, Gaddafi, who came to power after a bloodless coup in 1969, stubbornly clung on to power. Al Qaeda’s North African wing said “it will do whatever we can to help” the uprising in Libya, CNN reported, citing a statement.
Troops loyal to Gaddafi, also known as the Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, attacked anti-government protesters in the city of Al-Zawiya, west of Tripoli.
A witness told an Al Arabiya broadcaster that the city had become a “slaughterhouse” and that it was difficult to say how many people had been killed or injured, DPA reported.
Gaddafi’s troops also attacked the town of Zuara, 120 km west of the capital, Xinhua quoted a TV report as saying.
“What is happening in Zuara like genocide, hundreds of dead and wounded,” an eyewitness said on phone.
Though desperate attempts were being made to crush the rebellion, reports indicate that cities like Cyrenaica, Derna, Bayda and Misurata, besides Benghazi, were under the control of the pro-democracy demonstrators.
In a crucial development, sections of the army have switched sides.
Army officers stationed in Misurata, in a statement, pledged their “total support” for the protesters. Major-General Suleiman Mahmoud, the commander of the armed forces in Tobruk, added that his troops had switched loyalties.
“I was with him (Gaddafi) in the past but the situation has changed – he’s a tyrant,” he told Al Jazeera.
With the situation deteriorating in Libya, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini warned that it may spark an exodus of up to 350,000 immigrants toward European shores.
Frattini dismissed Libya’s official number of 300 dead during protests, putting the death toll at 1,000 – the same figure used by reports citing eyewitnesses in the north African country.
“We don’t have exact numbers but the figure of 1,000 is likely,” AKI quoted him as saying.
US crude oil price crossed $100 a barrel Wednesday, hitting the triple digits for the first time since October 2008, as violence in Libya caused anxiety in oil markets, Xinhua reported.
The protests in Libya began after mass demonstrations forced Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power Feb 11, and one month after demonstrators across the border in Tunisia toppled their longtime leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In Bahrain, an umbrella group of seven main opposition parties outlined their key demands, as the anti-regime unrest intensified with protesters calling for a nationwide strike and the government’s ouster.
The opposition groups have asked for release of all political prisoners, electoral reforms, and formation of a new “national salvation” government, along with an independent probe into the deaths of seven protesters since the clashes began more than a week ago.
Most of the protesters are Shia Muslims who are seeking more rights from the country’s ruling Sunni Muslims.
In an effort to appease the protesters, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has freed 308 political prisoners and pardoned two other men.
“We have set Thursday as deadline for the government to resign. And if it fails to resign on that day, we would expand the protest,” an opposition activist said.
Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered the country’s security forces to protect protesters trying to force him out of power and loyalists alike, also continued to be tense.
Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, has been hit by mass anti-government riots for nearly two weeks demanding the end of Saleh’s 30-year rule.
“Ali Abdullah Saleh instructed all security services to thwart all clashes and prevent direct confrontation between pro- and anti-government protesters,” Al Arabiya quoted an official statement.