In Libya, fighting between Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and rebels has broken out in the eastern oil export port of Ras Lanuf and the town of Zawiyah, west of Tripoli. Mass protests against Gaddafi’s rule were scheduled to begin after noon prayers across the country, but in Tripoli, Gaddafi supporters have set up checkpoints throughout the city to prevent protesters from moving about. Foreign journalists were ordered not to leave their hotels, and internet service has reportedly been cut off in Tripoli and Benghazi. But some protesters in Tripoli have defied the crackdown. Some 1,000 protesters reportedly streamed out of the Murad Agha mosque in the Tajura district of Tripoli, chanting, “The people want to bring the regime down.”
Speaking in Washington, D.C., President Obama has publicly said for the first time that Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi must leave office. During a news conference Thursday, Obama said he has ordered the U.S. military to be prepared to take action in Libya if needed.
President Obama: “There is a danger of a stalemate that over time could be bloody, and that is something that we are obviously considering. So, what I want to make sure of is that the United States has full capacity to act, potentially rapidly, if the situation deteriorated in such a way that you had a humanitarian crisis on our hands or a situation in which civilians were — defenseless civilians were finding themselves trapped and in great danger.”
President Obama also said that he has also authorized the use of U.S. military aircraft for airlifts.
President Obama: “We are also responding quickly to the urgent humanitarian needs that are developing. Tens of thousands of people from many different countries are fleeing Libya, and we commend the governments of Tunisia and Egypt for their response, even as they go through their own political transitions. I have therefore approved the use of U.S. military aircraft to help move Egyptians who have fled to the Tunisian border to get back home to Egypt. I’ve authorized USAID to charter additional civilian aircraft to help people from other countries find their way home. And we are supporting the efforts of international organizations to evacuate people, as well.”
The United Nations is reporting the number of people trying to flee Libya has fallen as heavily armed government forces intensified their presence on the Tunisian border and on roads leading up to it. Roughly 15,000 people had been crossing the border every day, but on Thursday that number plunged to 2,000.
In news from Egypt, leaders of the pro-democracy movement are hailing the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. Shafik was installed by President Hosni Mubarak a few days before he was forced out of office by a popular uprising. Former Transport Minister Essam Sharaf was tapped to replace him. Sharaf spent his first full day in office by visiting Tahrir Square to speak with protesters. The new prime minister was carried to and from the stage on the shoulders of people in the square. Sharaf vowed to join the protest movement if he is not able to institute their demands, which include an end to the longstanding emergency law and the release of political prisoners and other reforms.
Protests are occurring across the Middle East following Friday prayers. In Yemen, soldiers killed at least four protesters and wounded seven others during demonstrations in the northern province of Amran.
In Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, protesters rallied to demand the release of Shiite prisoners that they feel are being held unjustly. The protest comes one week after Saudi authorities arrested a prominent Shiite leader who called for Saudi Arabia to become a constitutional monarchy.
In Iraq, thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand economic progress and an end to corruption. Protests are reported in Baghdad, Basra, Nineveh, Anbar and Salaheddin. In an attempt to limit the size of the protests, the Iraqi government has banned the movement of vehicles in Baghdad and other major cities, forcing protesters to walk to the demonstrations. Today has been described as the “Day of Regret,” to mark one year since the Iraqi parliamentary elections.
There have been a number of developments in the Wisconsin fight to preserve union rights. The two-week-old occupation of the State Capitol building has ended after a judge ruled demonstrators could no longer sleep inside, but the judge ruled the building must be open to the public during business hours. About 50 protesters left the building peacefully late last night. Republican state senators in Wisconsin have passed a resolution ordering the police to detain any Democratic senator who does not return to the Capitol by today. Wisconsin’s 14 Senate Democrats fled the state more than two weeks ago in an attempt to block the passage of an anti-union budget bill. Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is threatening to issue layoff notices to 1,500 workers today if the budget budget bill does not pass.
New information has come to light about the prison conditions of accused U.S. Army whistleblower Bradley Manning, who is being held at the Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia. According to his lawyer, Manning was stripped of all his clothes on Wednesday and then forced to remain naked in his cell for seven hours. Manning’s clothes were returned only after he was forced to stand naked outside his cell during an inspection. Manning’s attorney described the treatment as inexcusable and an embarrassment to the military justice system. The incident occurred just hours after the military filed 22 additional charges against Manning for having allegedly illegally downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. military and U.S. Department of State documents that were then publicly released by WikiLeaks. One of the new charges, “aiding the enemy,” could carry a death sentence.
On Thursday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange responded to the new charges against U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who has been accused of illegally downloading and disseminating classified documents.
Julian Assange: “They’re certainly trying to set an example. You know, one of these charges carries with it the death penalty, and that’s a very serious matter. And it will also be a serious matter if that charge is extended from Bradley Manning to other people and to us as publishers of the alleged material.”
Global food prices have hit a new record high, rising 2.2 percent in just the past month. The price of wheat and rice have increased by 70 percent over the past year, and coffee and sugar costs have also skyrocketed.
Fears are growing that a civil war could break out in Ivory Coast after seven female protesters were shot dead Thursday as they called on President Laurent Gbagbo to step down. The United Nations says at least 365 people have died since November’s election, nearly all supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner. Supporters of Ouattara accused the Gbagbo government of massacring the seven female protesters.
Supporter of Alassane Ouattara: “Our mothers went out to march peacefully with their hands empty [of weapons]. Then we saw Gbagbo’s tanks that came and opened fire on the old women, killing at least six on the spot, seven dead in all, after another died in the car. We are ready. As we don’t have the means to defend ourselves, we managed to prepare some bombs, and we are waiting for Gbagbo’s elements, and this time we will finish with them.”
A California man has sued the Obama administration and the FBI for violating his constitutional rights by tracking his movements with a GPS device hidden on his car. Twenty-year-old Yasir Afifi was alerted to the tracking device by a mechanic last October. The lawsuit accuses the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice of violating his constitutional rights by tracking his movements and conducting searches without a warrant.
Yasir Afifi: “I feel like my rights have been violated as an American citizen and as a student. I don’t deserve to be followed or spied on whatsoever. I should be able to travel back and forth freely without being held for four hours or interrogated at all. Now, I’ve already encountered two employers who have had to think twice before hiring me and have denied me the job due to this very incident. Now, I’m not starting a fight, I’m just asserting my rights. And I hope that no one else has to go through this nonsense after me.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has surprised many after she praised the news programming on Al Jazeera, while she criticized the over-commercialization of news programs in the United States. Speaking before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Clinton said the United States is losing the “information war.”
Hillary Clinton: “Viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news, which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”
While Al Jazeera English is broadcast to more than 200 million homes around the world, it is hardly available in the United States due to what critics have described as a media blackout by U.S. cable and satellite providers.
At the University of California, Berkeley, students took over part of Wheeler Hall on Thursday to protest funding cuts to public and higher education. Eight students chained themselves to the ledge on the building’s fourth floor.