UPDATE 12:00 PM EST Al Jazeera reports:
Thousands of protesters have reoccupied the Pearl roundabout in the capital, Manama, after troops and riot police retreated from the symbolic centre of their anti-government uprising.
The cheering protesters carrying Bahraini flags, flowers and signs that said “Peaceful, peaceful” marched to the traffic circle on Saturday. They chanted, “We are victorious”.
Protesters kissed the ground in joy and took pictures of about 60 police vehicles leaving the area.
Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the crown prince, had earlier in the day ordered the military to withdraw, saying that the police would now be responsible for enforcing order, the Bahrain News Agency reported.
Soon after the crown prince’s directive, protesters attempted to stream back to the roundabout, but were beaten back by the police. According to the Reuters news agency, about 80 protesters were taken to a hospital after being hit by rubber bullets or teargas.
The protesters, however, were successful in the next attempt, after riot police withdrew as well from the traffic circle.
The protesters had refused to enter a dialogue with the Crown Prince until they were allowed back to Pearl. Precisely what this military and police withdrawal means is unclear as of now but Bahrainis are tweeting about their joy in this victory as well as their sorrow at the loss of so many to achieve it.
Since the attack at 3AM Friday in Bahrain when government forces attacked sleeping democracy activists, there have been persistent rumors of 60-70 missing protesters. As Al Jazeera notes:
Our correspondent further said that while it was “almost impossible” to confirm a figure for those who had gone missing during Thursday’s crackdown, one opposition politician put the number at 70.
Robert Fisk – reporting now from Bahrain, also raises questions about these missing people who we’ve heard mentioned since the attack early Friday morning:
Rumors burned like petrol in Bahrain yesterday and many medical staff were insisting that up to 60 corpses had been taken from Pearl Square on Thursday morning and that police were seen by crowds loading bodies into three refrigerated trucks. One man showed me a mobile phone snapshot in which the three trucks could be seen clearly, parked behind several army armored personnel carriers. According to other demonstrators, the vehicles, which bore Saudi registration plates, were later seen on the highway to Saudi Arabia. It is easy to dismiss such ghoulish stories, but I found one man – another male nurse at the hospital who works under the umbrella of the United Nations – who told me that an American colleague, he gave his name as “Jarrod”, had videotaped the bodies being put into the trucks but was then arrested by the police and had not been seen since.
Fisk does a very good job of explaining the forces who wish the protesters to fail – and support the vicious crackdown along with his interviews with witnesses to Friday evening’s live fire attack:
A medical orderly was returning with thousands of other men and women from the funeral at Daih of one of the demonstrators killed at Pearl Square in the early hours of Thursday.
“We decided to walk to the hospital because we knew there was a demonstration. Some of us were carrying tree branches as a token of peace which we wanted to give to the soldiers near the square, and we were shouting ‘peace, peace. There was no provocation – nothing against the government. Then suddenly the soldiers started shooting. One was firing a machine gun from the top of a personnel carrier. There were police but they just left as the soldiers shot at us. But you know, the people in Bahrain have changed. They didn’t want to run away. They faced the bullets with their bodies.”
You can see those events in the video above and here. The protesters you see in the beginning are chanting “peaceful, peaceful.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists demanded that Bahrain – and Yemen and Libya – stop attacks on reporters including:
According to the New York Times, “forces in a helicopter that had been shooting at the crowds opened fire at a Western reporter and videographer who were filming a sequence on the latest violence.”
Meanwhile, President Obama’s press spokesman said the president was “deeply concerned.” As RedhaHaJi tweeted last night:
Demos cant expect intervntn, US/UK endorse genocide in the world benefit their Nat ints #bahrain WTH does ‘Exercise restraint’ mean OBAMA?
From Libya, news is harder to come by. There are reports that protesters have seized control in some cities but that is unconfirmed. Foreign Policy does report that protesters have taken over a radio station in Benghazi:
The radio commentary itself is gripping, with breathless amateur announcers calling on the international media to cover what “the criminal Qaddafi” is doing and warning fellow Libyans about “foreign mercenaries.”
Overnight, the internet was totally blocked in the county and it appears only landlines are now working. There are reports of police and military retreating to barracks in numerous cities in Eastern Libya where large protests have taken place. Human Rights Watch
Government security forces have killed at least 84 people in three days of protests in several cities in Libya, Human Rights Watch said today, based on telephone interviews with local hospital staff and witnesses…
Thousands of demonstrators gathered in the eastern Libyan cities of Benghazi, Baida, Ajdabiya, Zawiya, and Derna on February 18, 2011, following violent attacks against peaceful protests the day before that killed 20 people in Benghazi, 23 in Baida, three in Ajdabiya, and three in Derna. Hospital sources told Human Rights Watch that security forces killed 35 people in Benghazi on February 18, almost all with live ammunition…
By 11 p.m. on February 18, Al Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi had received the bodies of 35 people killed that day, a senior hospital official told Human Rights Watch. He said the deaths had been caused by gunshot wounds to the chest, neck, and head. Two sources at the hospital confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the death toll for February 17 was 20, and that at least 45 people had been wounded by bullets.
The senior hospital official told Human Rights Watch, “We put out a call to all the doctors in Benghazi to come to the hospital and for everyone to contribute blood because I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
…In Baida, further to the east, protesters on February 18 buried the 23 people who had been shot dead the day before…
In Ajdabiya, to the south of Benghazi, one protester told Human Rights Watch that early on February 18 people had gathered to bury the three protesters shot dead the day before…
In Jordan, Friday protests have been occurring weekly calling for reform. This week, pro-government thugs beat the protesters while police watched but the protesters say they keep coming back until there is change:
Akhram Ismail, 50, a government employee of 17 years who earns a meagre $140 per month, said his salary was not enough to feed his six children and wants to see changes to aid the poor.
Ismail vowed that Jordan would not see an end to the protests anytime soon.
“The government recently promised civil servants a pay raise of $28, while politicians play with millions,” he said.
Protests continue in Yemen and in Iraq where orphans will march today in Baghdad. New mass demonstrations are planned for Algeria on Saturday as well. We’ll continue to update events across the Middle East throughout the weekend.