Nato kills Gaddafi son, grandchildren Teen blood flows in Deraa

ROME, May 1, (AFP): The most senior Catholic official in Tripoli on Sunday confirmed on Italian television that Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Arab had been killed and appealed for a ceasefire.
“I confirm the death of the son of the leader,” Giovanni Martinelli, the bishop of Tripoli, told the Sky TG24 channel.
Television pictures showed him standing with other religious dignitaries in front of three bodies covered in shrouds and flags.
He said he was taken to the morgue by officials of various local churches and added that they then all said a prayer.
Martinelli said he felt the anger of all those present but added that the dignitaries thanked him for his “gesture of solidarity”.
An early critic of the Western military campaign in Libya, he appealed to NATO, the United Nations and the international community to end the bombing of Libya.
“I ask, please, out of respect for the pain due to the loss of a son, a gesture of humanity towards the leader (Gaddafi),” he said.
The Libyan strongman had up until now been protected the Christians and Catholics of Libya, he added.
“He is a great friend and we must help him find a form of dialogue” with the international community, said the bishop.
The bishop has lived in Libya for more than 30 years. His official title is the apostolic vicar of Tripoli.
Libya said on Sunday Muammar Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren were killed in a NATO air strike and Britain said that while it was not targeting the leader, it was homing in on his military machine.
Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said Gaddafi was unharmed and in good health despite what he called “a direct operation to assassinate the leader of this country”.
Britain and Italy’s embassies in Tripoli were attacked after Gaddafi loyalists were shown on Libyan television vowing vengeance following the air strike.
Britain expelled the Libyan ambassador and Italy condemned the attack on its embassy as a grave and vile act. Most Western countries closed their embassies in Tripoli before the NATO military intervention began several weeks ago.
Libyan officials took journalists to a Tripoli house that had been hit by at least three missiles. The roof had collapsed in places. Glass and debris covered the lawns and what appeared to be an unexploded missile lay in one corner.
“What we have now is the law of the jungle,” Ibrahim said. “We think now it is clear to everyone that what is happening in Libya has nothing to do with the protection of civilians.”
Libya’s civil war, which grew out street demonstrations for greater political freedoms that have rippled across the Arab world, has reached stalemate in recent weeks.
NATO denied targeting Gaddafi, or his family, but said in a statement it had launched air strikes on military targets in the same area of Tripoli as the bombed site seen by reporters.
Ibrahim said Gaddafi’s youngest son, Saif al-Arab, was killed in the attack. Saif al-Arab, 29, is one of Gaddafi’s less prominent sons, with a limited role in the power structure. Ibrahim described him as a student who had studied in Germany.
Al Arabiya on Sunday broadcast footage taken from Libyan Jamahiriyah TV which it said were the bodies of Saif al-Arab and the three children — two 2-year-olds and a five-month-old. They were wrapped in green cloth with their faces covered in white.
“NATO continued its precision strikes against regime military installations in Tripoli overnight, including striking a known command and control building in the Bab al-Aziziyah neighbourhood shortly after 1800 GMT Saturday,” NATO said.
NATO’s commander of Libya operations, Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, said the target was part of a strategy to hit command centres that threaten civilians.
“All NATO’s targets are military in nature ... We do not target individuals,” he said in a statement. “I am aware of unconfirmed media reports that some of Gaddafi’s family members may have been killed. We regret all loss of life.”
Any appearance of an assassination attempt against Gaddafi is likely to lead to accusations that the British- and French-led strikes are exceeding the provisions of the UN resolution to protect civilians.
British Prime Minister David Cameron declined to comment on what he also called the “unconfirmed report”.
But he told BBC television: “The targeting policy of NATO and the alliance is absolutely clear. It is in line with UN Resolution 1973 and it is about preventing a loss of civilian life by targeting Gaddafi’s war-making machine. So that is obviously tanks and guns, rocket launchers, but also command and control as well.”
The French Foreign Ministry said: “France is following its mandate from the UN Security Council and there is no question of regime change or targeting individuals in the resolution.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a long-time ally of Gaddafi, called the attack attempted murder.
The Foreign Ministry also questioned NATO’s assertion that the alliance is not targeting Gadhafi or members of his family.
“Statements by participants in the coalition that the strikes on Libya are not aimed at the physical destruction of ... Gadhafi and members of his family raise serious doubts,” a ministry statement said.
It also said the “disproportionate use of force ... is leading to detrimental consequences and the death of innocent civilians.” The ministry called for “an immediate cease-fire and the beginning of a political settlement process without preconditions.”
In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said the Libyan government’s announcement that Gadhafi’s relatives were killed in the airstrike late Saturday remained unconfirmed.
A Russian lawmaker who often serves as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin’s views on foreign affairs was less diplomatic.
“More and more facts indicate that the aim of the anti-Libyan coalition is the physical destruction of Gadhafi,” Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the lower house of parliament’s international affairs committee, was quoted as saying.
Kosachyov called on Western leaders to make their position on the airstrikes clear.
“I am totally perplexed by the total silence from the presidents of the United States, France, the leaders of other Western countries,” Kosachyov said in an interview, according to the Interfax news agency. “We have the right to expect their immediate, comprehensive and objective assessment of the coalition’s actions.”
The lawmaker and Foreign Ministry were following the lead of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has harshly criticized the airstrikes and accused NATO of trying to kill Gadhafi.
Extremists
Gaddafi, who seized power in a 1969 coup, is fighting an uprising by rebels who have seized much of eastern Libya. He describes the rebels as religious extremists and Western agents who seek to control Libya’s oil.
Saturday night’s attack appeared to be the second NATO strike near to Gaddafi in 24 hours. A missile struck near a television station early on Saturday when the Libyan leader was making an address in which he said he would never step down and offered talks to rebels.
The rebels say they cannot trust Gaddafi.
Gaddafi’s daughter was killed in a US air strike in 1986, ordered after a bomb attack on a West Berlin discotheque killed two US servicemen. Washington linked Tripoli to the attack.
Tripoli has declared a sea blockade on the besieged western outpost of Misrata, potentially stopping the rebels from sending weapons and humanitarian supplies in from their eastern heartland. An International Organisation for Migration ship, the Red Star One, was waiting offshore to deliver aid and evacuate migrants.
A rebel spokesman reported more shelling in Misrata.
“The bombardment started last night. It is still going on,” the spokesman, called Reda, told Reuters by telephone. “The random bombardment targeted residential areas and the port area. I can hear explosions now.”
Rebel spokesman Ahmed Hassan said later that the Libyan army was shelling where an aid ship was trying to unload. Libyan TV said government forces were trying to stop a NATO arms delivery to “armed criminal gangs”.
A third rebel spokesman said government forces and rebels were fighting for control of the airport near Misrata.
Pockets of fighting continued elsewhere in the west.
Government forces were bombarding Zintan with rockets to try to advance on the rebel-held city southwest of Tripoli, and the rebels said NATO was bombing Libyan army positions nearby.
Loyalists’ artillery fire also landed in the Tunisian border town of Dehiba after fighting on the Libyan side of the border.
A rebel spokesman and an oil official said an air strike destroyed a Gaddafi convoy after his forces killed five civilians in fighting in the eastern towns of Jalu and Awlijah.
‘Fire’
US Republican Senator John McCain on Sunday said it would be “fine” if NATO air strikes killed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi while targeting his command centers.
His comments came after the Libyan government said Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren were killed in an air strike, while the Libyan leader was unharmed.
“We should be taking out his command and control, and if he is killed or injured because of that, that’s fine,” McCain said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“But we ought to have a strategy to help the rebels succeed and overthrow Gaddafi and everybody associated with him.”
McCain, who visited the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi last month, said he was not satisfied with President Barack Obama’s handling of Libya because “we have taken a backseat role.”
The United States should contribute more air power to the NATO operation, said McCain, the top Republican on the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We need to get back in the fight,” he said. “A very bad outcome here would be a stalemate which would then open the door to al Qaeda,” he said.
Staff
The United Nations said Sunday it was pulling its staff out of Tripoli as violence erupted after a NATO air strike apparently killed several members of Muammar Gaddafi’s family.
“Given the unrest, UN staff are going to leave Tripoli,” a UN spokeswoman, Eri Kaneko, told AFP, alluding to the deteriorating security situation in the Libyan capital.
Protesters set fire Sunday to British and Italian embassies, which are on the same street in central Tripoli, hours after Gaddafi’s second-youngest son and three of his grandchildren were reported killed in a NATO air strike.
Gaddafi had allowed the United Nations to maintain a humanitarian presence in the Libyan capital and a limited number of international aid staff were on the ground in Tripoli.
The establishment of the UN humanitarian presence in Tripoli was agreed by emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos in a deal struck with the Libyan government on April 17.
Syria
Blood spurts from the heads of shot teenagers, staining the asphalt, in amateur video obtained by Reuters from inside the besieged Syrian city of Deraa where government forces are trying to crush weeks of protests.
“He has a pulse. He has a pulse,” one teenager shouts next to the blood-soaked body of a youth in jeans. “No, no. Martyr. Martyr,” he says as his comrades rush to carry the body under a hail of machinegun bullets.
The footage was believed to have been taken on Friday in the southern city where protests broke out in March, the start of a six-week-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Troops and tanks stormed into Deraa on April 25.
More footage shows a similar scene at a road leading to Deraa, where young villagers on motorcycles rushed on Friday to support their relatives under the week-long siege.
“God is greater. Down with Bashar,” the villagers chant as a hail of bullets hits the crowd. A youth falls down with a bullet in his back.
“Say the shahadeh,” whispers one youth in the ear of a comrade, referring to the Muslim declaration “There is no God but Allah”.
Foreign correspondents have largely been excluded from Syria since a government crackdown began, and Reuters was not able to verify the content of the videos independently.
But the smuggled material appeared to support witnesses’ and rights groups’ accounts of dozens of civilians killed by live fire from snipers, security forces and an army unit commanded by Assad’s feared brother Maher.
After a six-day campaign in which Assad sent dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles into the centre of the old city in the fiercest assault on the pro-democracy uprising, witnesses recounted an eerie silence on Sunday in the area, replacing days of heavy shelling.
Syrian authorities are  meanwhile carrying out a wave of arrests in the city of Deraa in their latest move to crush protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, residents said on Sunday.
The residents said they had seen packed busloads of handcuffed and hooded young men being taken in the direction of a large detention centre in the city run by the security services.
“They are arresting all males above 15 years. They only have old security tactics and they are acting on revenge,” said a prominent lawyer in Deraa who did not want to be further identified.
“Bullets are their response to the people’s revolt. The security forces who came to Deraa told us ‘Go buy bread from a bakery called Freedom. Let’s see if it feeds you,’” he added.
A Deraa witness who identified himself as Adnan al-Hourani told Al Jazeera television that security forces had divided the southern Syrian city into four sections, each cut off from the others, and had gathered all the detainees in schools and were preparing to transfer them.
Assad sent troops backed by dozens of tanks into Deraa on April 25 to silence revolt against his 11-year rule. Protests began there in March and have escalated into an uprising in the country of 20 million people which is now into its seventh week.
Power and communications in Deraa have been disrupted. On Saturday, tanks shelled the old quarter and security forces stormed the Omari mosque, a focal point for protests.
“It is a ghost city this morning. At dawn we heard machinegun bursts that scared birds. But it’s mostly quiet now,” said Abu Haytham, a government employee, on Sunday.
Residents said dozens of corpses stored in two refrigerator trucks parked near the mosque, where snipers were seen standing near the minaret, had started to decompose after the trucks ran out of diesel.
Overnight rain diluted the pools of spattered blood on the streets, spreading it into wider patches, residents said. Women and children had chanted from rooftops until the early hours, shouting “God is greatest against the tyrant.”
The uprising, unthinkable only months ago, flared after mass protests swept across the Arab world, toppling authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. A Syrian rights group said at least 560 civilians have been killed.
Foreign correspondents have largely been excluded from Syria since the protests escalated and the crackdown began.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Adel Safar was quoted on Saturday by state news agency SANA as saying his government would in the coming weeks draw up a “complete plan” of political, judicial and economic reforms.
The pledge was unlikely to dampen the intensity of protests. A severe crackdown followed the once-unthinkable gesture of lifting a decades-old emergency law last month.
The government also has little influence as Assad, his family and the security apparatus have a stranglehold on power.
Syria blames armed groups for the violence. SANA quoted an official military source as saying on Saturday that army and security forces units had been chasing “armed terrorist groups” who had attacked properties in Deraa.
Tanks
Syrian army tanks shelled the old quarter of a city at the heart of the country’s six-week-old uprising Sunday, as military reinforcements rolled in to join a siege that has lasted for nearly a week, a witness said.
Residents have remained defiant: Unable to leave their homes, they have chanted “God is great!” to each other from their windows in the evenings, infuriating security forces and raising their own spirits.
“Our houses are close to each other, so even though we can’t go outside, we stand by the windows and chant,” said a Daraa resident, speaking to The Associated Press by satellite phone. “Our neighbors can hear us and they respond.”
Daraa has been without water, fuel or electricity since Monday, when the regime sent in troops backed by tanks and snipers to try to crush protests seeking an end to President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule.
Tanks and armored personal vehicles have cut off neighborhoods, and snipers nesting on rooftops throughout the city have kept residents pinned in their homes. Other areas of the country have also come under military control, but Daraa has faced the most serious stranglehold.
The death toll has soared to 545 nationwide from government forces firing on demonstrators — action that has drawn international condemnation and US financial penalties on senior figures in Assad’s regime.
Tanks fired shells into the heart of Daraa’s ancient Roman quarter Sunday, said a resident who lives on the outskirts of the city. He said he could identify the weaponry because he was a former soldier.
Men were forbidden to leave their homes but women were allowed out in the early morning to search for bread, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear that Syrian forces would identify him.
The witness’ accounts could not be independently verified. Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots, making it almost impossible to confirm the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.
The unrest has repercussions far beyond Syria’s borders because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Palestinian Hamas and with Shiite powerhouse Iran.
If the regime in Syria falls, the instability has the potential to upend the regional power balance in a part of the world already riven by strife.
In recent weeks, there have been small signs that cracks are developing in the regime.
Yemen
Gulf states said on Sunday they are to renew efforts to end a deadly political crisis in Yemen, after the opposition accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh of having torpedoed their bid at the weekend.
The Gulf Cooperation Council “hopes to remove all the obstacles still standing in the path of achieving a final agreement,” the six-nation grouping of Yemen’s oil-rich Arab neighbours said after a meeting in Riyadh.
GCC secretary general Abdullatif al-Zayani is to “go back to Sanaa with this aim,” it said, without specifying a date.
Delegations from Saleh’s ruling party and the Common Forum opposition coalition had been expected to join GCC foreign ministers in the Saudi capital on Sunday to sign the deal ahead of Saleh’s exit.
“There is no longer an invitation. The general secretary of the GCC left yesterday without the president’s signature, so the initiative has failed,” opposition official Mohammed al-Sabri told AFP earlier.
Zayani left Sanaa on Saturday after failing to have Saleh endorse the GCC-proposed deal to end Yemen’s three-month-old crisis, but the meeting of Gulf foreign ministers went ahead as scheduled in Riyadh.
“Four sessions of talks were held to convince him (Saleh), and every time he came up with a new condition,” Sabri said.
The Common Forum, in a statement, has held the regime “completely responsible for ruining the (Gulf) effort” and accused Saleh of “manoevering ... to gain time in an effort to push the country into chaos.”
They urged impoverished Yemen’s Arab neighbours to “continue with their efforts ... and to exert all sorts of pressure to stop the violence and killing of peaceful protesters.”
Another leading opposition figure, Sultan al-Atwani, head of the Unionist Nasserist Party, urged the Arab monarchies of the GCC to pressure Saleh to sign the deal.
The GCC deal proposes the formation of an opposition-led government of national unity, Saleh transferring power to his vice president and an end to the deadly protests that have rocked the country since late January.
Under the accord, the president would submit his resignation to parliament on the 30th day after the deal, a day after parliament would have passed a law guaranteeing immunity from prosecution to Saleh and his aides.
A presidential election would follow in 60 days.
However, a defiant Saleh has publicly insisted on sticking to the constitution in any transfer of power, even though his ruling People’s Congress Party has said it accepts the GCC plan.
Zayani visited Sanaa on Saturday to formally invite Saleh and his opponents to sign the power transfer deal, state media had said ahead of a signing ceremony that was to have taken place in Riyadh on Monday.
But he left empty-handed after the president refused to sign the deal himself, instead assigning one of his advisers to do so on his behalf, sources close to both sides said.
And after Zayani informed members of the Common Forum of Saleh’s position, they also refused to sign the pact unless the veteran leader himself endorsed the agreement.
Demonstrations calling for Saleh’s immediate ouster have cost more than 145 lives over the past three months.
On Sunday, demonstrators again took to the streets of Taez, Yemen’s second-largest city, insisting on their demand for the ouster of Saleh and his regime.
“We are not concerned by the initiative, whether they sign or not,” said Ahmed al-Wafi, a leading activist among the mostly young protesters in Taez, south of the capital.
Demonstrators also condemned the killing of four protesters in Aden on Saturday when security forces stormed a sit-in demonstration.
The Watan coalition of youth groups denounced the attack, charging that “bloody oppression apparatus stormed the ‘Freedom Square’ with armoured vehicles and tanks, and burned tents.”
It urged the Common Forum to “return to their grass roots ... on the street with other demonstrators.”
Gunmen shot dead three policemen in Yemen’s southeastern province of Hadramaut on Sunday, a security official told AFP.
“The policemen where stationed at the entrance to the town of Seiyun when unknown gunmen, armed with machine guns, attacked them, killing three and seriously wounding another,” said the official.
Rocked by nationwide anti-regime protests, Yemen has also been battling a secessionist movement in the south of the country, a Shiite revolt in the north and an al-Qaeda resurgence in eastern and southern provinces.
Bahrain
The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce has called for a complete boycott of trade with Iran to protest against Tehran’s alleged fuelling of unrest in the tiny Gulf kingdom, press reports said on Sunday.
The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) on Saturday agreed to the boycott of bilateral trade estimated at an annual five billion dollars (3.4 billion euros), reports said.
“We denounce Iran’s blatant interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain, including its speeches and statements against the kingdom,” the BCCI said.
“In light of this situation, the chamber calls all traders, businessmen, companies and other institutions to boycott Iranian goods and stop dealing with their merchants.”
It also urged other Gulf Cooperation Council states — Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — to follow Bahrain’s boycott of trade with Iran.
BCCI treasurer Othman Sharif said their decision was taken in solidarity with Bahrain’s leadership.
“We want to show support to our leaders and decided to boycott all Iranian goods,” he told the Gulf Daily News. Bahrain mainly imports food, including dried fruit, from neighbouring Iran.
Iran, predominantly a Shiite nation, has admitted giving “moral support” to the demands of Bahrain’s people, but without any involvement in the protests in its Arab Gulf neighbour.
Bahraini authorities have come under strong criticism from international rights organisations over a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters from the Shiite-majority community in the kingdom that is ruled by a Sunni dynasty.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama urged Bahrain’s monarch to respect “universal rights of the people” on Saturday, two days after four protesters were sentenced to death.
In his phone conversation with King Hamad, Obama said Washington “believes that Bahrain’s stability depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis,” the White House said in a statement.
Bahrain, headquarters for the US Fifth Fleet and responsible for US naval forces in the region, was hit by protests from mid-February to mid-March amid a broader revolt roiling across the Arab world.
Oman
An Omani court will begin trails Monday for 27 people charged with participating in an illegal protest in the northern industrial town of Sohar, a judicial source said.
Eight of the suspects are in custody while the others had been released on bail after their arrest for taking part in violent demonstrations at Sohar, 200 kms (125 miles) north of the capital Muscat in February.
The suspects have been charged for inciting violence, obstructing a highway and taking part in an illegal rally. It was not immediately clear what punishment they would face if convicted.
In early April, police announced the release of 57 protesters arrested at Sohar where a demonstrator was killed by police.
Some 234 people who were arrested immediately after the rally were granted a pardon from Sultan Qaboos and released.
However, the authorities are pressing charges against those accused of setting fire to public and private property and causing distress to state officials.
The normally sleepy sultanate was temporarily caught up in the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world, with Omani demonstrators taking to the streets in February to demand an improvement in living conditions.
At the start of March, Sultan Qaboos announced a cabinet reshuffle and the creation of 50,000 new jobs.
Demonstrators in Oman have insisted from the start that their protest is aimed at “corrupt” officials, not at Qaboos himself, who has ruled the sultanate for 40 years.
Morocco
Trade unions in Morocco threw their weight on Sunday behind demands for reform confronting the Arab world’s longest-serving dynasty and several thousand demonstrators marched through the streets.
Heavy rain may have kept some away, with turnout in the commercial capital Casablanca down on previous protests since February that have authorities concerned about a possible Egypt-style popular uprising.
But Sunday, Labour Day, marked the first time some of Morocco’s trade unions have joined protests driven by the youth-led February 20 Movement and inspired by grassroots revolts in other parts of the Arab world.
They turned out despite a pledge by King Mohammed’s government to increase public sector salaries and raise the minimum wage from May 1 — the latest in a series of handouts from authorities anxious to prevent a spillover of popular revolt from other North African countries.
Protests in Tunisia that toppled veteran autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January gathered decisive momentum when trade unions got involved in a significant way.
Moroccan textile worker Mohamed Maadour complained that his comrades would only get half of the promised 10 percent increase to the minimum wage. “We don’t understand why we are being singled out when the textile industry is the country’s most lucrative and its biggest employer,” he said.
But divisions were evident and could yet weaken the call for change, with some unions distancing themselves from a February 20 Movement sit-in in the city.
“We are marching because we want to push for a social agenda that has nothing to do with the political agenda of the February 20 Movement,” said Abdelhaq Tafnout of SNB, the banking employees union.
Only some 1,500 people affiliated with the independent UMT union, the country’s largest, explicitly supported the sit-in and UMT’s leading figures were absent.
The protesters’ demands include a reduction in the king’s political clout, a crackdown on corruption and the sacking of members of the monarch’s inner circle whom they accuse of abuse of power and business malpractice.
King Mohammed has appointed a committee to reform the constitution in order to cede more powers, promised to make justice independent and freed some political prisoners.
Protesters said they would not be deterred by security fears after a bomb at a cafe in the tourist city of Marrakesh on Thursday killed 15 people, many of them foreign tourists.
“We understand that some prominent figures in the ‘old’ regime will want to use the attacks to stop this movement for change and reform, but they won’t be able to,” said Youssef Mezzi, an organiser of the February 20 Movement.
Protesters carried placards that read, “No to terrorism, yes to reform”, and, “Oh Moroccans, the blasts are a charade.”
Egypt
Egypt’s military rulers warned on Sunday of strong measures against anyone inciting sectarian strife, in a bid to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power after president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February, said it was “exerting all efforts to end sectarian disagreements on the Egyptian street to protect this nation.”
“The council warns that it will not hesitate to take all measures, whatever they may be, to protect the unity of the Egyptian social fabric and the stability of Egypt,” it said on its Facebook page.
The statement came after a series of Muslim-Christian clashes and amid the growing public presence of Salafis — a puritanical Islamist sect — since the fall of Mubarak after a wave of mass protests.
On Friday, around 2,000 Salafis protested outside the Coptic Church’s headquarters in Cairo to demand the release of two women they allege are being held after converting to Islam.
The church denies the women converted to Islam.
The Salafis have held regular protests over the case in the past year, but they have usually been smaller in number.
Their cause was picked up by an al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that massacred dozens of Christians in a Baghdad church in November 2010 and vowed more attacks until the two women are freed.
Two months later, a suicide bomber killed more than 20 Copts after a New Year’s Eve mass in Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria.
In the central province of Minya, security was boosted last month after a Christian-Muslim family dispute sparked deadly clashes, prompting Muslim residents to burn homes and shops owned by Coptic Christians.
Thousands of workers packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday, demanding social justice in post-revolt Egypt as they celebrate their first Labour Day in three decades without ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Speakers representing independent labour unions took to the stage in the square — epicentre of anti-regime protests that brought Mubarak down — calling for the independence of syndicates, a minimum wage and the trial of corrupt union heads.
Waving Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian and communist party flags, they chanted “Social Justice,” as security forces and military police looked on, clearing the way for traffic in Cairo’s bustling centre.
A statement signed by 49 organisations including the Coalition of Revolution Youth, political parties, leftist groups, independent unions, NGOs and rights groups called for a minimum monthly wage of 1,500 Egyptian pounds (around $250, 169 euros), and a wage ceiling to “ensure fair distribution of wealth.”
They also called for the Mubarak-affiliated trade unions to have their assets frozen.
Hussein Megawer, former head of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) is currently being investigated for corruption as part of a sweeping probe launched by the country’s new military rulers.
Earlier, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called on workers to help get “the wheel back in motion” after the country was practically paralysed by 18 days of anti-regime protests in January and February and has since been inching towards normality.
When Mubarak stepped down on February 11, handing power to a military council, political protests gave way to a nationwide explosion of pay strikes.
Workers have longed complained of a salary gap between management and staff, and say many workers have no benefits and legal protection, having worked on temporary contracts for years.
The Mubarak regime had also denied Egyptian workers the right to organise independent trade unions, which saw Egyptian syndicates banned from the International Labour Conference.
 

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