Last updated: February 16, 2011 3:41 pm

Protests flare as Libya arrests activists

Libyan authorities have begun rounding up activists as the wave of popular unrest that ousted the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents spreads to the oil-exporting north African country ruled by Col Muammer Gaddafi since 1969.

Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, Libyan activists have been calling on Facebook for a “day of anger” on Thursday to mark the February 2006 death of demonstrators during a protest against the Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Mohamed.

In what appears to have been a pre-emptive strike, however, security forces arrested on Tuesday in Benghazi, the second city, a prominent lawyer and spokesman for families of prisoners who were killed in a separate incident – the 1996 shooting in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison.

The arrest might have been driven by fears that the lawyer, Fethi Tarbel, could be instrumental in mobilising support for the day of anger in a city that has been a hotbed of rebellion against the Gaddafi regime.

But it provoked an immediate reaction late on Tuesday from the families, who held a demonstration that turned into clashes with pro-Gaddafi supporters and, according to local media, left 14 people injured.

Human rights activists said Mr Tarbel had been released, as had another member of the prisoner’s family who was detained with him. But at least four others were arrested on Wednesday morning, including a writer who had given an interview to al-Jazeera, the Qatar-backed television network.

Libyan television on Wednesday showed crowds protesting in support of Gaddafi and against al-Jazeera, which has been giving extensive coverage to protests across the Arab world.

Heba Morayef, North Africa researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the call for the day of anger had first been launched by Jamal al Hajj, who was part of a group who had sought to stage a demonstration in 2007 to protest against the February killings the previous year.

Mr Hajj was arrested on February 1, but other activists in Libya and abroad spread the call for a protest through social networking sites. “February 17 is a big date for Libyans,” said Ms Morayef.

The regime has declared Thursday a public holiday and cancelled football matches this week, according to Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, as it seeks to counter the new rebellious spirit unleashed by Tunisia and Egypt.

Mr Miles said that it was “anybody’s guess” whether the call for protests will send massive crowds on to the streets on Thursday.

The government has already reduced food prices to ease popular frustrations. Despite its oil wealth, Col Gaddafi’s regime faces the same problems that provoked revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, including high unemployment, rampant corruption and rage against the brutal repression of security forces.

Col Gaddafi claims that Libyans are their own masters in the system of governance that he calls a Jamahiriya, or people’s republic, when in fact he holds all the levers of power. According to Mr Miles, Col Gaddafi this week said he too was against the government and would join rallies against it.

In a country of 6m people where dissent is not tolerated and political parties are banned, Libyans have also been facing the prospect that Col Gaddafi’s rule would be followed by that of one of his sons, either Seif al-Islam or Mutassem, head of a security agency.

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