|Africa's longest-serving leader took power after a 1969 coup.|
Witnesses said protesters in the eastern port city of Benghazi chanted slogans demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi. The Associated Press said that the crowds did not appear to direct their anger at Moammar Gadhafi, who is Africa's longest-serving leader. He has ruled for 41 years.
However, Al-Jazeera reported that sources said the demonstrators chanted slogans against the "corrupt rulers of the country." Al-Jazeera said the protesters had called on citizens to observe Thursday as a "Day of Rage," hoping to emulate the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and end Gadhafi's regime. As in the previous uprisings, Libyan activists were using social networking websites including Facebook. Rioting is unusual in oil exporter Libya, where Gadhafi keeps a tight grip on political life. Libya's official news agency did not carry any word of Wednesday's anti-government protests. It reported only that supporters of Gadhafi were holding pro-government demonstrations in Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities.
However, the online edition of Libya's privately-owned Quryna newspaper, which is based in Benghazi, said the crowd were armed with Molotov cocktails and threw stones. It said they protested outside a local government office to demand the release of the human rights activist, and then went to the city's Shajara square where they clashed with police and government supporters. The paper also reported that government supporters had taken over the square. Fourteen people were injured including 10 police officers, but none of the injuries were serious, the newspaper added.
A Benghazi resident contacted by Reuters said the people involved in the clashes were relatives of inmates in Tripoli's Abu Salim jail, where militant Islamists and government opponents have traditionally been held.
Some were relatives of inmates killed at the prison in June 1996, when more than 1,000 prisoners were shot dead. "Last night was a bad night," said the witness, who did not want to be identified. "There were about 500 or 600 people involved. They went to the revolutionary committee (local government headquarters) in Sabri district, and they tried to go to the central revolutionary committee ... They threw stones," he said. "It is calm now."
Following the rioting, a local human rights activist, Mohamed Ternish, told Reuters that the government was to release 110 prisoners jailed for membership of the banned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
The prisoners are the last members of the group still being held, he added. On Monday, several opposition groups in exile called for the overthrow of Gadhafi and for a peaceful transition of power in Libya. "Col. Gadhafi and all his family members should relinquish powers," the groups said in a statement.
Idris Al-Mesmari, a Libyan novelist, told Al-Jazeera by telephone that security officials dressed as civilians used tear gas, batons and hot water to disperse the protesters. The news service added there were unconfirmed reports that Al-Mesmari was arrested hours after the interview. An Egyptian blogger, Mohammed Maree, told Al-Jazeera that Gadhafi's government "continues to treat the Libyan people with lead and fire." "This is why we announce our solidarity with the Libyan people and the families of the martyrs until the criminals are punished, starting with Moammar and his family."
Gadhafi came to power 1969 through a military coup and since then he has been ruling the country with no parliament or constitution. Although Gadhafi claims he is only a revolutionary leader with no official status, he holds absolute power. The opposition groups say that in practice he has direct control of the country's politics and its military and security forces. Most analysts say Libya is unlikely to see an uprising along the lines of Tunisia or Egypt.
The government has huge amounts of oil cash which it can use to placate unhappy citizens. Libyan society and public life is built around family and tribal ties, so if there is any challenge to Gadhafi's rule, it is likely to happen behind the scenes and not in the streets. The crucial test for Gadhafi now is whether the unrest spreads beyond Benghazi to the capital and the west of the country.
People in Benghazi have a history of antagonism with Gadhafi. Many of them did not support him when he came to power in a military coup in 1969, and since then the region has been cut out of much of the largesse handed out by the government from oil revenues, deepening the resentment. When dozens of prisoners accused of membership of a banned Islamist militant group were released last year from Abu Salim, most of them headed east to Benghazi, where their families live.