- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

CAIRO | Egypt-inspired unrest spread against longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday, with riot police clashing with protesters in the second-largest city of Benghazi and marchers setting fire to security headquarters and police stations in two other cities, witnesses said.

Mr. Gadhafi’s government sought to allay further unrest by proposing the doubling of government employees’ salaries and releasing 110 suspected Islamic militants who oppose him - tactics similar to those adopted by other Arab regimes in the recent wave of protests.

Activists using Facebook and Twitter have called for nationwide demonstrations on Thursday to demand the ouster of Mr. Gadhafi, the establishment of a constitution and comprehensive political and economic reforms.

Mr. Gadhafi came to power in 1969 through a military coup and has ruled the country without an elected parliament or constitution.

The Benghazi protest began Tuesday, triggered by the arrest of an activist but quickly took on an anti-government tone, according to witnesses and other activists. The protest was relatively small, but it signaled that anti-government activists have been emboldened by uprisings elsewhere.

It started at the local security headquarters after troops raided the home of rights advocate Fathi Tarbel and took him away, according to Switzerland-based activist Fathi al-Warfali.

Mr. Tarbel was released after meeting with Libya’s top security official, Abdullah al-Sanousi, but the protesters proceeded to march through the coastal city to the main downtown plaza, Mr. al-Warfali said.

Protests renewed on Wednesday as the families of four other activists still in custody, including author Idris al-Mesmari, marched on security headquarters to demand their release, Mr. al-Warfali said, citing witnesses.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said a total of nine activists have been arrested in Tripoli and Benghazi in an effort to prevent people from joining the rallies called for Thursday.

Those protests have been called to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the killing of nine people demonstrating in front of the Italian Consulate against a cartoon depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

“This is a pre-emptive attempt to prevent peaceful protests on Feb. 17,” the group’s Heba Morayef said.

Meanwhile, the government freed 110 Islamic militants who were members of a group plotting to overthrow Mr. Gadhafi, leaving only 30 members of the group in prison.

As part of a reconciliation plan, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, the leader’s son, has orchestrated the release of members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is suspected of having links to al Qaeda.

The government also proposed increasing the salaries of state workers by 100 percent.

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