Libyan anti-government protesters continued to gather Feb. 18, with reports of deaths coming from the restive northeastern cities of Benghazi and Al Bayda. Though the bulk of the protests so far have been about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away from Tripoli and have not yet reached a critical mass, this does not mean they do not pose a threat to leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Protests in Libya continued for a fourth day Feb. 18, with reports of deaths coming from the particularly restive northeastern cities of Benghazi and Al Bayda. Human Rights Watch reported Feb. 17 that 24 people (other opposition estimates put it closer to 33) protesting the regime of leader Moammar Gadhafi were killed by responding security forces and pro-government militias across five cities on Feb. 16 and Feb. 17, most by gunshot wounds. Violence continued in both cities the next day, with Benghazi reporting 14 deaths. Opposition leaders claim that "thousands" have congregated in Benghazi and Al Bayda, though there is very little video or photographic imagery to support these claims. Only short, amateur videos and pictures of protesters are available so far, and those videos only show loosely packed crowds numbering perhaps in the hundreds. This is not to say that there are not more protesters on the street. There is a dearth of foreign media coverage in Libya and state-owned television is not broadcasting images of the protesters but the limited, crude footage STRATFOR has seen so far does not show crowds large enough to back up the opposition's claims.
Location of Anti-government Protests
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Tripoli: Libya's capital, population 1.7 million, has not seen anti-government protests on the scale of towns in the northeast, but there are indications that may be changing. Twitter users have reported that at least one building was set on fire and that protesters raised a Libyan flag dating to before Gadhafi took power over a court building in Tripoli — though these reports have yet to be confirmed and could be misinformation from the anti-government demonstrators. Limited, amateur video footage from the city indicates that anti-government forces consist of no more than a hundred or so people. Tripoli has also seen large turnouts for pro-government protests in previous days, with Gadhafi even taking part Feb. 17 and Feb. 18. The presence of pro-government protesters could lead to a violent confrontation between the two sides.
Benghazi: Protesters were gathering near the courthouse in the city's center Feb. 18. An eyewitness speaking to CNN earlier in the day said there were no security forces near the courthouse but that they were gathering around the outskirts of the city of 650,000 people. A nurse at a Benghazi hospital said unidentified men in security uniforms abducted three patients overnight who had been injured in protests the previous day — possibly an attempt to detain protest leaders in order to disrupt their organization. Quryna newspaper reported that 1,000 prisoners also escaped from Al Kuifya prison — 150 were subsequently recaptured, indicating that police are still patrolling the area — on the outskirts of Benghazi and are being blamed for setting fire to the prosecutor's office, a bank and a police station. Prison breaks are significant as they may release political prisoners along with criminals, adding both ideological and physical opposition to the government to the streets. The bulk of the protesters appears to be peaceful. Reports of physical violence appear to trace back to the prisoners and not necessarily the protesters; however, the line can blur very quickly in such a fluid situation.
Al Bayda: There are conflicting reports on the death toll in this city of 206,000 for Feb. 18, ranging from two to 25 dead. On Feb. 17, hospital staff confirmed that 16 people were killed during protests. Murky reports citing opposition groups outside of Libya (Swiss-based Libyan Human Rights Solidarity Group and the Libyan Committee for Truth and Justice) claimed that protesters had "taken over the city," though it is unclear what this means. They also stated that security forces were fighting back, so protesters certainly are not operating unopposed in the city. Reuters reported that police were joining the protesters' side. There are unconfirmed reports that protesters took over the airport there as well as reports that pro-government militia groups, some reportedly even coming from Chad, are being used to fight back against the protesters. The use of foreign mercenaries would be an interesting development in Libya, especially considering reports that the local police may be joining with the protesters, and certainly warrants further attention.