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Mideast leaders look to hold onto power as protests continue

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Thousands of people came to celebrate their symbolic victory as protesters in Bahrain took back Pearl Square. (Feb. 19)

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 8:22 PM

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - The uprisings sweeping the Arab world showed little sign of abating Saturday as protesters from Bahrain to Libya to Yemen returned to the streets to demand greater freedoms in defiance of government crackdowns.

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The demonstrations have left entrenched leaders - some of whom have held power for decades - scrambling to figure out how to maintain control amid criticism from abroad of the heavy-handed tactics they have long used to sustain their rule.

In Bahrain, demonstrators triumphantly returned to the Pearl Square roundabout after the military pulled back on government orders. But in Libya, security forces fired on mourners departing funerals for protesters killed in the eastern city of Benghazi, leaving 15 people dead, the Associated Press reported.

Human Rights Watch reported that Libyan security forces have killed at least 84 people in three days of protests against President Muammar Gaddafi's 42 years in power. Many of the deaths have occurred in Benghazi, the country's second-largest city.

Algerian riot police prevented opposition figures from gathering for the second time in two weeks in central Algiers, and riot police in Yemen shot dead a protester and injured five others as thousands marched during the 10th day of demonstrations there. Anti-government demonstrators chanted "the people want the fall of the regime,'' before they were attacked by backers of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, AP reported.

Thousands of people marched in the Tunisian capital, calling for religious tolerance a day after the government said a priest's throat had been slit by a "terrorist" group, Reuters reported. The demonstration was one of the largest in the North African country since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted last month, inspiring the wave of protests across the Arab world.

In Bahrain, police at first fired tear gas at protesters as they approached the Pearl roundabout they were forcibly expelled from just three days ago, witnesses said.

But then the security forces pulled back, and a carnival atmosphere filled the square as demonstrators returned. Some distributed candy as speakers denounced the Bahraini government.

Earlier in the day, tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled out of the square and from other sites in the city on the government's orders as the country's crown prince, Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, urged the opposition to meet with him.

Salman has been assigned to try to broker a dialogue with the mostly Shiite-led opposition, which is demanding the resignation of the prime minister, who has held the post for four decades. Protesters also want greater representation and other democratic reforms in a country where most power is wielded by the Sunni minority. He appears to hope that by halting the harsh tactics employed by security services over the past few days, he can create an opening for discussion of the demonstrators' grievances.

Salman apparently is also trying to quickly convey a sense of calm to the outside world, especially to the organizers of the Formula One car racing competition, who are deliberating whether to scrap plans to hold the race in Bahrain next month and move it to Barcelona. The event is a huge source of revenue, and pride, for Bahrain's leaders, who have heavily promoted the race and continue to sell seats even with uncertainty over whether it will take place here.

In a statement released Saturday, the crown prince appealed to all political factions to join hands and "begin a new phase" in which "we will discuss all our issues sincerely and honestly."

The statement represented a "180-degree change of policy,' " said Jassim Hussain, a member of the Shiite political party al-Wefaq, which withdrew its 18 members from the 40-seat parliament to protest the government's attacks on protesters.

The party has not decided whether to sit down with the crown prince. "We still have people who are not in the mood to talk," Hussain said.


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