Protesters under fire from land, sea and air in Libya

Gaddafi uses planes to attack protesters. Ivorian troops fire on protesters as AU leaders seek resolution. Congo colonel sentenced to jail for rapes. Saleh rejects demands to go as Yemeni troops fire on demonstrators. All this and more in today’s briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
21 February 2011

Dozens of people have been killed at the hands of security forces in Libya today, as the violent state response to escalating protests against the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule grows more desperate. An anti-government rally in the Libyan capital Tripoli came under sustained attack from security forces. Although reports are conflicting and the communication blackout in Libya makes verifying information about what is going on almost impossible, witnesses have reported that the government used navy ships, fighter jets and attack helicopters, as well as regular and irregular troops, against protestors in Tripoli today.

As the situation in the streets deteriorates, Gaddafi is believed to have fled the capital for his home town. Rumours that Gaddafi may be en route to Venezuela have been denied in Caracas.

A number of high-profile Libyan officials have publicly resigned from their posts, leaving Gaddafi and his loathed son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi increasingly isolated. The latest official to resign was Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s deputy permanent representative at the United Nations, who described the government response to the protests as “crimes against humanity and crimes of war” and warned that if Gaddafi does not step down “the Libyan people will get rid of him.”  Meanwhile, the country’s justice minister, Mustapha Abdul Jalil has also resigned, expressing his disgust at the government’s “excessive use of force,” as has Libya’s envoy to Arab League, Abdel Noeim al-Honi.

After a weekend of intensifying protest, which has left 233 people dead since last Thursday according to Human Rights Watch, protestors were believed to in control of Benghazi, Libya’s second city. Unconfirmed reports from the International Federation for Human Rights said the towns of Sirte, Tobruk, Misrate, Khoms, Tarhounah, Zenten, Al-Zawiya and Zouara are also now controlled by protestors. Two major tribes have also declared their support for the anti-government protesters, including the Warfla, the country’s largest tribe.

In a sign of the Gaddafi’s increasing desperation, his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, made a national address on state TV, warning that the protests would lead to civil war. While offering political reforms and admitting that Benghazi had fallen into the hands of protestors, Saif Gaddafi offered conflicting messages to the Libyan people. Blaming the protests on thugs, inmates, foreigners and Islamists, he cautioned Libyan’s to prepare themselves for occupation by “the West” if they continued to protest.

Foreign leaders have been quick to condemn the Libyan government for its response to the protests. Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations’ Secretary General, condemned the violence and urged all parties to show restraint. Resigning UN envoy Dabbashi called on the international community to close Libyan airspace to be closed, to prevent the import of weapons and mercenaries. The European Union also strongly condemned Gaddafi’s response.

However, European support for the protesters is qualified by fears for supposed national interests. Franco Frattini, the foreign minister of Italy, which along with France and latterly the UK had close ties with the Gaddafi regime, warned the EU of the rise of an “Islamic emirate” on the border of Europe. Meanwhile the EU began holding crisis talks about the perceived ‘risk’ of an influx of immigrants fleeing chaos and instability in northern Africa.

Ivorian troops fire on protesters as AU leaders seek resolution

Troops loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo killed at least four protesters calling for Gbagbo to step down as leader in Abidjan today. Meanwhile, leaders from across the African Union arrived in the troubled country’s capital city to continue talks aimed at resolving the crisis that has gripped Ivory Coast since November last year.

Security forces opened fire on demonstrators in the neighbourhoods of Koumassi and Treichville after a weekend of violent clashes between supporters of Gbagbo and his opponent Alassane Ouattara, in which at least five people were reportedly killed and a dozen wounded, say to witnesses.

A disputed presidential election intended to unify Ivory Coast, which most believe was won by Ouattara last November, has led to a protracted political standoff, with Gbagbo refusing to concede defeat. Whilst Ouattara and his internationally-recognised ‘government’ holed up in a luxury hotel protected by United Nations’ peacekeepers, and Gbagbo retaining practical control of the security forces and key transport hubs, the country’s economy has gone into free fall.

Leaders from South Africa, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso and Tanzania met yesterday in Mauritania to discuss African Union proposals to resolve the crisis. According to Reuters, a source close to the talks said that the delegation would insist that Gbagbo stand down in return for guarantees of his safety. However, Gbagbo has repeatedly rejected similar proposals in the past, and analysts are not optimistic about this latest mediation effort.  

Ouattara has called for an Egypt-style revolution to force Gbagbo out, but the incumbent leader has used loyalist security forces to crush protests. Eye-witness reports from the areas affected by violence describe the neighbourhoods as “battlefields.” Army spokesman Hilaire Babri Gohourou said on state-owned Radio Television Ivoirienne that the army has “reinforced the deployment” of troops in Abidjan to prevent a deterioration in the security situation.

Congo colonel sentenced to jail for rapes

A court in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has convicted nine soldiers of commiting mass rape, and sentenced a lieutenant-colonel in national army, Kibibi Mutware, to twenty years imprisonment for his role in the incident, in what is the first sentencing of a commanding officer on rape charges in eastern DRC.

 An estimated fifty women were raped in the town of Fizi, South Kivu province, on New Year’s Day this year, in what was believed to be a revenge attack after a drunken dispute left one soldier dead.

The trial in Baraka, South Kivu, lasted more than ten days and was widely seen as a test of the authorities’ commitment to punishing sexual violence. Rape is frequently used as a weapon to terrorise local populations in eastern DRC, not only by rebel groups but also by government soldiers. The country’s national army is comprised of a number of former rebel groups, which were incorporated into the army as part of a broader reform of the security sector after decades of civil war. Kibibi is one of former rebels who joined army in 2009 as part of peace agreement aimed at restoring security to DRC.  

However, allegations of human rights abuses including sexual violence against government troops are well known amongst analysts. Human Rights Watch published a detailed report into sexual violence perpetrated by the army in 2009. DRC was last year described by Margot Wallstrom, the United Nations’ special representative on sexual violence, as “the rape capital of the world.”

This case may be a landmark in changing official attitudes towards rape. Whereas incidents typically go unreported because of the stigma attached to sexual violence, which has led to a climate of impunity for soldiers and rebels, the trial in Baraka was attended by 49 women who testified against Kibibi and his soldiers. The court also sentenced eight other soldiers to between 10 and 15 years.

Although numerous aid agencies are working to combat sexual violence in DRC, little has so far been achieved to protect women and girls from sexual attacks. If this latest case is a sign of official willingness to take rape seriously, it may be a sign that that situation is starting to change.

Saleh rejects demands to go as Yemeni troops fire on demonstrators

The Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has today refused demands to step down from his post as protests continue to rock the impoverished Gulf state for the eleventh consecutive day. Saleh instead offered talks with official opposition parties, saying that “if they want me to quit, I will only leave through the ballot box.” The president also warned that chaos would reign if he were to resign.

As protests have grown in strength over the past ten days, official opposition parties have grown closer to unorganised youth and student groups inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia. In an indication of Saleh’s growing isolation, ten members of parliament from the ruling party resigned their posts yesterday in protest at the use of violence against protesters. All groups dismissed Saleh’s offer of talks.

The weekend saw plain clothes police men firing on unarmed protestors at Sana’a university, as pro-government demonstrators clashed with anti-government protesters. Thousands of people staged demonstrations in the cities of Ibb and Taiz yesterday. Demonstrators were injured and at least one was killed in the city of Aden yesterday.

Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, faces high youth unemployment rates and an acute water crisis. Coupled with dwindling oil reserves and secessionist movements in both north and south, the government has so far succeeded in maintaining a fragile balance. A key ally in the war on terror since December 2009, Saleh has become increasingly reliant on American and British economic and military aid – a factor that has left his government isolated.

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