CAIRO – Security forces in Libya and Yemen fired on pro-democracy demonstrators Saturday as the two hard-line regimes struck back against the wave of protests that has already toppled autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia. At least 15 died when police shot into crowds of mourners in Libya's second-largest city, a hospital official said.
Even as Bahrain's king bowed to international pressure and withdrew tanks to allow demonstrators to retake a symbolic square in the capital, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh made clear they plan to stamp out opposition and not be dragged down by the reform movements that have grown in nations from Algeria to Djibouti to Jordan.
Libyans returned to the street for a fifth straight day of protests against Gadhafi, the most serious uprising in his 42-year reign, despite estimates by human rights groups of 84 deaths in the North African country — with 35 on Friday alone.
Saturday's deaths, which would push the overall toll to 99, occurred when snipers fired on thousands of mourners in Benghazi, a focal point of unrest, as they attended the funerals of other protesters, a hospital official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
"Many of the dead and the injured are relatives of doctors here," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "They are crying and I keep telling them to please stand up and help us."
Earlier, special forces had attacked hundreds of demonstrators, including lawyers and judges, who were camped out in front of a courthouse in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city.
Authorities also cut off the Internet across Libya, further isolating the country. Just after 2 a.m. local time in Libya, the U.S.-based Arbor Networks security company detected a total cessation of online traffic. Protesters confirmed they could not get online.
Reports could not be independently confirmed. Information is tightly controlled in Libya, where journalists cannot work freely, and activists this week have posted videos on the Internet that have been an important source of images of the revolt. Other information about the protests has come from opposition activists in exile.
A female protester in Tripoli, the capital city to the west, said it was much harder to demonstrate there. Police were out in force and Gadhafi was greeted rapturously when he drove through town in a motorcade on Thursday.
Throughout the Middle East, protesters for weeks have been crying out against a similar litany of injustices: repressive governments, corrupt officials and pathetic wages among them. Government responses seem to be hardening. While there was violence during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the government retaliation in Yemen and Libya in particular appeared to be more sustained.
In Yemen's capital of Sanaa, riot police opened fire on thousands of protesters, killing one anti-government demonstrator and injuring five others on a 10th day of revolt against Saleh, a key U.S. ally in fighting al-Qaida.
As on other days earlier this week, protesters marching from Sanaa's university were met by police and government supporters with clubs and knives who engaged in a stone-throwing battle with the demonstrators. At one point, police fired in the air to disperse the march.
A medical official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said one man was shot in the neck and killed, raising the total death toll from Yemen protests to seven.
In a meeting with civic leaders, Saleh said Yemenis have the right to express themselves peacefully and the perpetrators of the unrest were trying to seize power by fomenting instability.
"The homeland is facing a foreign plot that threatens its future," Saleh said, without elaborating.
Saleh, who has been in power for three decades, has tried to blunt discontent by promising not to seek re-election when his term ends in 2013.
But he is facing a restless population, with threats from al-Qaida militants who want to oust him, a southern secessionist movement and a sporadic armed rebellion in the north. To try to quell new outbursts of dissent, Saleh also has reached out to tribal chiefs, who are a major base of support for him. So far, however, that has not changed the response in the streets.
In the tiny island nation of Bahrain, thousands of joyful protesters streamed back into the capital's central Pearl Square after the armed forces withdrew from the streets following two straight days of a bloody crackdown.
The royal family, which was quick to use force earlier this week against demonstrators in the landmark square that has been the heart of the anti-government demonstrations, appeared to back away from further confrontation following international pressure.
President Barack Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the "universal rights" of its people and embrace "meaningful reform."
In a telephone call to the crown prince, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he welcomed the government's military withdrawal and strongly supported efforts to initiate a dialogue.
The demonstrators have emulated protesters in Tunisia and Egypt by attempting to bring political change to the government in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet — the centerpiece of Washington's efforts to confront Iranian military influence in the region.
Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, appealed for calm and political dialogue in a brief address on state TV.
As night fell, though, defiant protesters in Pearl Square erected barriers, wired a sound system, set up a makeshift medical tent and deployed lookouts to warn of approaching security forces.
Protesters took over the square earlier in the week, setting up a camp with tents and placards, but they were driven out by riot police in a deadly assault Thursday that killed five people and injured more than 200. The government then clamped down on Manama by sending the tanks and other armored vehicles into the streets around the square, putting up barbed wire and establishing checkpoints to deter gatherings.
On Friday, army units shot at marchers streaming toward the square. More than 50 people were injured.
Some of the protesters were wary of Bahrain's leaders, despite the military withdrawal.
"Of course we don't trust them," said Ahmed al-Shaik, a 23-year-old civil servant. "They will probably attack more and more, but we have no fear now."
The cries against the king and his inner circle reflected a sharp escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy's power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority.
Algerian police, meanwhile, thwarted a rally by thousands of pro-democracy supporters, breaking up the crowd into isolated groups to keep them from marching.
Police brandishing clubs, but no firearms, weaved their way through the crowd in central Algiers, banging their shields, tackling some protesters and keeping traffic flowing through the planned march route.
A demonstrating lawmaker was hospitalized after suffering a head wound when he fell after police kicked and hit him, colleagues said.
The gathering, organized by the Coordination for Democratic Change in Algeria, comes a week after a similar protest, which organizers said brought an estimated 10,000 people and up to 26,000 riot police onto the streets of Algiers. Algeria has also been hit by numerous strikes over the past month.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift the state of emergency, which has been in place since early 1992 to combat a budding insurgency by Islamist extremists. The insurgency, which continues sporadically, has killed an estimated 200,000 people.
Bouteflika has warned, however, that a long-standing ban on protests in Algiers would remain in place, even once the state of emergency is lifted.
Algeria does have many of the ingredients for a popular revolt. It is riddled with corruption and has never successfully grappled with its soaring jobless rate among youth — estimated by some to be up to 42 percent — despite its oil and gas wealth.
"The people are for change, but peacefully," said sociologist Nasser Djebbi. "We have paid a high price."
Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen; Hadeel al-Shalchi and Barbara Surk in Manama, Bahrain; Elaine Ganley in Algiers, Algeria, and John Affleck in Cairo contributed to this report.