At Least Two Dozen Dead In Libyan Unrest

Host Michele Norris speaks with a protester in Benghazi, Libya, and Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch about the uprising in Libya. Human Rights Watch says at least two dozen people have died.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And there's also news from the anti-government uprisings in Libya. In the capital, Tripoli, army and special forces troops loyal to strongman Moammar Gadhafi are out in force. Dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries are being reported across Libya. Much of the unrest is concentrated in the country's east, including the coastal city of Benghazi.

Breka is a woman who works as a physician there. She asked us not to reveal her last name for fear of retaliation from the Libyan government, but she told us about what's happening in the nation's second largest city with thousands of protesters taking to the streets.

BREKA (Physician): They are now in front of the court. It's a peaceful protest, but in many other sites of the country, it's violence, clashes between the government and the protester, between the police and the protester. There was many people killed. There was a hundred of injured people between moderate and serious injuries in the hospitals and many hospitals of Benghazi.

NORRIS: We spoke with Breka earlier today. She said it is the third day of protests there, and just before we lost the line while talking with her, she told us that the situation is escalating.

BREKA: It's a critical situation right now. The police attacking us with tearing gases and with hot-water cannon and with live munitions shot. So it begins from there. It started just as a small protest before. The last day of rage was supposed to start yesterday, and now, it got larger, larger and larger as our rage is going larger day by day.

NORRIS: Breka is a physician from Benghazi, Libya. She also told us that some army units had joined with the demonstrators there, and that there are reports of retaliatory violence against pro-government forces by street protesters.

For more on Libya, I also spoke with Sarah Leah Whitson. She's Mideast and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch. She has been in contact with sources around the country, and what she's hearing is deeply disturbing.

Ms. SARAH LEAH WHITSON (Mideast and North Africa Director, Human Rights Watch): What we have been able to verify in terms of the people we've talked to, eyewitnesses there, is that the Libyan riot police, security forces and government-sponsored thugs opened fire on demonstrators, particularly a group of demonstrators who had deployed after attending a funeral, using live ammunition as well as other weapons to attack the demonstrators in efforts to disperse them.

And we have recorded at least 24 killed. Although at this point, we are fairly confident that the number is going to be much higher because that report of ours came out yesterday, and we've since added a number of more of figures to that.

NORRIS: This is a case where Moammar Gadhafi has ruled for four decades. He's the world's longest ruling dictator. Is there anything that he has said or done right now that has had any kind of effect on the protesters who were flooding into the streets?

Ms. WHITSON: I don't think there was an immediate trigger to what we're seeing in Libya. I think it's more a feeling among the people on the ground there that this is the moment for the Middle East, and this is their chance to try to push for serious change and transformation in Libya.

I think it's fairly clear to Libyans who've been living under Gadhafi's leadership for over 40 years that this is not a government that's serious about reform.

NORRIS: We're able to monitor what's going on in Libya in part because a small number of journalists have made it into the country. People have been able to post things on various social media. What is it that we're not able to see or hear or understand in this moment?

Ms. WHITSON: Well, we're certainly not able to hear and understand the scope and the depth of what's happening in Libya.

In Bayda, we know that Libyan officials have said that they've withdrawn their own security forces, which means that effectively they've lost control of that city.

The Libyan government deliberately refuses to give international journalists visas to access the country. And so what we have is sporadic and dispersed information coming to us from various capitals, but we don't have independent observers in all the various cities where there have been uprisings in Libya.

NORRIS: What is it that the protesters want, and can you imagine Moammar Gadhafi entering into some sort of dialogue with the people that have taken to the streets?

Ms. WHITSON: Well, in some places, what they've wanted and what they're demanding besides and beyond reform is for Gadhafi to leave. I think for many Libyans, they have absolutely no hope or no faith in Gadhafi's ability to reform or to have dialogue.

I don't think that Gadhafi himself is really used to having a dialogue because he has been surrounded by government functionaries at the highest level, Cabinet ministers who would never second-guess him or question him.

His own son who has tried, in heading the Gadhafi Foundation, to institute and introduce and implement some reforms, was himself this year forced to pull back and face security sort of threats himself and has formally announced just this year that he was giving up anything to do with human rights as part of his organization.

So even those closest to him have not been able to push a reform agenda forward.

NORRIS: In some of these cases, the protests have lasted for days, in the case of Egypt, weeks, 18 days. Has there been an example where the government security forces have been in a prolonged conflict with protestors on the streets in this country?

Ms. WHITSON: In Libya?

NORRIS: In Libya.

Ms. WHITSON: No, no. But what we saw in Egypt we'd never seen in Egypt for 30 years, either. It was unprecedented.

NORRIS: This is a new chapter.

Ms. WHITSON: This is a new chapter, a long-awaited new chapter.

NORRIS: Sarah Leah Whitson is the Middle East and North Africa executive director for Human Rights Watch. Sarah Leah Whitson, thanks for being with us.

Ms. WHITSON: You're very welcome.

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