CAIRO – Egypt-inspired unrest spread against Libya's longtime ruler Moammar Qaddafi on Wednesday, with riot police clashing with protesters in the second-largest city of Benghazi and marchers setting fire to security headquarters and a police station in the city of Zentan, witnesses said.
Qaddafi'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 used 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 Qaddafi, establishment of a constitution and comprehensive political and economic reforms. Qaddafi 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 and lasted until around 4 a.m. Wednesday. It was 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.
Tarbel was released after meeting with security official Abdullah al-Sanousi, but the protesters proceeded to march through the coastal city to the main downtown plaza, he said.
Families of other prisoners marched to security headquarters to protest the detention of Tarbel and another activist, writer Idris al-Mesmari, who remained in jail, al-Warfali reported, 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 Thursday's rallies. Those protests were 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.
Independent confirmation was not possible because the government tightly controls the media, but video clips posted on the Internet showed protesters carrying signs and chanting: "No God but Allah. Moammar is the enemy of Allah," and "Down, down to corruption and to the corrupt."
Police and armed government backers quickly clamped down, firing rubber bullets and dousing protesters with water cannons.
Another video with the same date showed people running away from gunfire while shots are heard. A young man in a white, bloodstained robe was then seen being carried by protesters.
A Libyan security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said 14 people, including 10 policemen, were injured. He said protesters were armed with knives and stones. Witnesses said the protests were peaceful but came under attack from pro-Qaddafi men.
In the southern city of Zentan, 75 miles south of Tripoli, hundreds of people marched through the streets and set fire to security headquarters and a police station, then set up tents in the heart of the town while chanting, "The people want the ouster of the regime," witnesses told al-Warfali.
Resentment against Qaddafi runs high in Zentan because many of the detained army officers who took part in a failed coup in 1993 are from the city of 100,000 people.
In Beyida, to the east of Benghazi, security forces rounded up a number of activists while searching for Sheik Ahmed al-Dayekh, an outspoken cleric who criticized Qaddafi and corruption in Libya during a Friday sermon.
The outbreak of protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Iran has roiled the Middle East and brought unprecedented pressure on leaders like Qaddafi who have held virtually unchecked power for decades.
It also has posed new challenges for the United States, which has strategic interests in each of the countries. President Barack Obama conceded Tuesday he is concerned about the region's stability and prodded governments to get out ahead of the change.
Libya's official news agency did not carry any reports of the anti-government protests. It reported only that supporters of Qaddafi demonstrated Wednesday in the capital, Tripoli, as well as Benghazi and other cities.
Libyan TV showed video of 12 state-orchestrated rallies of government employees, and students. The biggest was in Tripoli, where about 3,000 rallied in the streets, chanting: "Moammar is our leader. We don't want anyone but him."
JANA, the official news agency, quoted a statement from the pro-Qaddafi demonstrators as pledging to "defend the leader and the revolution." The statement described the anti-government protesters as "cowards and traitors."
Meanwhile, the government freed 110 Islamic militants who were members of a group plotting to overthrow Qaddafi, leaving only 30 members of the group in prison.
Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, 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, in the past as part of a reconciliation plan.
The government also proposed increasing the salaries of state workers by 100 percent.
Qaddafi, long reviled in the West, has been trying to bring his country out of isolation, announcing in 2003 that he was abandoning his program for weapons of mass destruction, renouncing terrorism and compensating victims of the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in Berlin and the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Those decisions opened the door for warmer relations with the West and the lifting of U.N. and U.S. sanctions, but Qaddafi continues to face allegations of human rights violations in the North African nation.
The activist's arrest followed the collapse of talks between the government and a committee representing families of hundreds of inmates killed when security forces opened fire during 1996 riots at Abu Salim, Libya's most notorious prison. The government has begun to pay compensation to families, but the committee is demanding prosecution of those responsible.
Al-Warfali said the ultimate goal was to oust the Qaddafi regime.
"These are old calls by the Libyan opposition in exile, but Egypt and Tunisia have given us new momentum. They brought down the barrier of fear," he said.