- - Thursday, February 17, 2011

Libyan protesters seeking to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi defied a crackdown and took to the streets in five cities Thursday, amid reports at least 20 demonstrators were killed in clashes with pro-government groups, as unrest continued across the Middle East and North Africa.

The protests in Libya were the most violent of the latest demonstrations inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Clashes erupted in Yemen and Bahrain on Thursday, while anti-government leaders in Iran and Algeria called for more protests this weekend.

“Today, the Libyans broke the barrier of fear. It is a new dawn,” said Faiz Jibril, an opposition leader in exile.

An opposition website and an anti-Gadhafi activist said unrest broke out during marches in Benghazi, Beyida, Darnah, Rijban and Zentan.

In several cities, protesters shouted, “Free Libya! Gadhafi, get out!” in what they called their “day of rage” against his 41-year brutal regime. Hundreds of pro-government demonstrators also rallied in the capital, Tripoli, blocking traffic in some areas, witnesses said.

Fierce clashes between protesters and government loyalists left at least 40 wounded in Yemen on Thursday, the seventh day of demonstrations demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule.

In the capital, Sanaa, protesters fought off attacks by police and government supporters swinging batons and daggers. Municipal vehicles ferried sticks and stones to the pro-government side, witnesses said.

Protesters burned tires and government vehicles in the port city of Aden, a day after security forces killed two demonstrators there, witnesses said.

For seven straight days, protests have hit the capital and other cities in the Arab world’s poorest country, a mountainous territory racked by tribal conflicts, armed rebellion and other serious woes.

In Bahrain, troops took control of the capital after riot police stormed an anti-government protest camp at dawn, killing three people and wounding 231.

Foreign Minister Khalid al Khalifa justified the crackdown, claiming the demonstrators were pushing the Shiite-majority kingdom ruled by a Sunni monarch to the “brink of sectarian abyss.”

In Iran, officials demanded that protest leaders be tried for treason, but defiant opponents of the theocratic regime posted calls on the Internet for fresh demonstrations on Sunday to mourn the deaths of two people killed in anti-government marches earlier this week.

In Algeria, a former senior official called on President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in an open letter to adopt sweeping political changes, as a powerful opposition coalition announced plans for a protest march on Saturday in the capital, Algiers.

“I address myself to you in this letter in a particularly delicate and dangerous context,” said Abdelhamid Mehri, the former secretary-general of the National Liberation Front, in power since independence in 1962.

• From combined dispatches

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