NICOSIA - Libyan police dispersed an anti-regime protest in the city of Benghazi overnight, prompting a show of strength by supporters of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi in a number of cities, media said Wednesday.
Website Libya al-Youm said police used "force" to disperse a crowd gathered outside a police post in Benghazi while the BBC quoted witnesses as saying stones were thrown at police who responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
The protest was started by families of 14 people killed at a 2006 Islamist rally in Benghazi, Libya's second city, who gathered outside the police post to demand the release of their lawyer Fethi Tarbel, online news portal Al-Manara said.
Tarbel, who had been arrested for unknown reasons, was freed under pressure from the families, according to another online news site, Qurina.
But the crowd of protesters grew and they began chanting anti-regime slogans such as "The people will end the corruption" and "The blood of the martyrs will not be in vain," before police moved in to disperse them.
Soon afterwards, state television showed hundreds of demonstrators taking to the streets of Benghazi as well as the capital Tripoli and the cities of Syrte and Sebha in a show of support for Kadhafi.
The veteran leader is facing rare Internet calls for protests on Thursday by activists buoyed by the ouster of veteran strongmen on its eastern and western borders, in both Egypt and Tunisia.
The demonstrations are being called to commemorate the deaths of the 14 protesters killed in 2006 but they are being fuelled by the wave of protests that has swept through the Arab world, rocking regimes that have long seemed unmovable.
A total of 69 people were also wounded in the 2006 protest in which the consulate of former colonial power Italy was targeted by demonstrators angry at cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Authorities have been sufficiently concerned about the scale of potential protests that they have hit out in a bid to discredit the dissidents.
At prayers attended by Kadhafi on Sunday to mark the anniversary of the birth of the prophet, the floor was opened to a "representative of the families of the Benghazi martyrs" to "renew their allegiance" to the leader, who seized power in a 1969 coup ousting a Western-backed monarchy.
"We will not allow traitors and mercenaries to help themselves to the blood of our sons," the speaker said.