Jordan PM warns of chaos as protester dies

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2011 4:54 PM

By Lina Ejeilat

AMMAN (Reuters) - A protester died after security forces broke up clashes Friday between supporters of King Abdullah and protesters calling for reform, and the government warned it would not tolerate "chaos."

Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit blamed opposition Islamists for the clash in the pro-Western monarchy, which has seen weeks of protests calling for curbs on the king's powers.

"What happened today is definitely the start of chaos and it is unacceptable and I warn of the consequences," Bakhit told Jordanian television. Addressing Islamists, he said: "I ask you, where are you taking Jordan?"

The family of the dead protester said he was beaten up by security forces, but the official Petra news agency said he died after he suffered a stab wound in the chest during the clashes which police were trying to quell.

Hussein al-Majali, the head of general security, said security forces did not use excessive force and that the protester who died suffered from a heart attack. "Security forces had nothing to do with it," he said.

Islamist, leftist, liberal and tribal figures have staged protests and sit-ins over the past few weeks calling for a constitutional monarchy in Jordan.

The demonstrations have been smaller than others across the Arab world, but underlying tensions between Jordanians of Palestinian origin and the country's indigenous "East Bank" population have resurfaced and could also threaten stability.

Authorities had not cracked down on the protests that have taken place, seeking to avoid provoking the kind of upheaval that toppled entrenched rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

But Friday's protest quickly turned violent after security forces used batons and sprayed water to break up a clash between the opposing camps who had gathered in the Gamal Abdul Nasser roundabout near the Interior Ministry in Amman. Dozens were wounded and were being treated in hospitals across Amman.

"What did we do wrong? We were calling for reform peacefully," Saeed Jameel, whose father died, told Reuters in Amman's Prince Hamza hospital.

His brother, Amer, had earlier told Reuters that their father, Khairy, 57, was a bystander. He said police beat his father up and he died after he arrived in hospital.

"We call on the king to visit and to set up an independent committee to investigate the reason for death and hold all those responsible accountable," Saeed told Reuters.

BLOW FOR REFORM

King Abdullah responded to the anti-government protests by sacking an unpopular prime minister last month and replacing him with Bakhit, a former intelligence general, in a step seen as dealing a blow to Islamist and liberal hopes for reform.

Dissent has built up and the opposition, disgruntled with slow pace of promised political reforms, has become more vocal in its slogans and calls for change.

Protester Mahmoud Hamawi told Reuters: "The (pro-monarchy) thugs were throwing stones from one side and police were attacking protesters with sticks to push them back."

A Reuters cameraman was beaten up by pro-monarchy supporters and Jordanian security forces. His camera was broken.

A photographer at the scene, Rabie Zureiqat, told Reuters security officers took his camera "and beat me with sticks."

A member of the medical team with the pro-reform protesters, some of whom camped out on the roundabout Thursday night, said more than 50 people had been injured, some seriously.

Friday, they chanted slogans against the interference of intelligence agents in political activities and called out against the head of intelligence, Mohammed Raqqad.

They also chanted "Peaceful, peaceful" and "We love Jordan."

"The people want to bring down political parties," chanted the pro-monarchy crowd, which also raised pictures of King Abdullah.

Bakhit's cabinet earlier this month announced the creation of a national dialogue committee in response to a call by King Abdullah to accelerate reforms.

But Jordan's Islamist opposition said it would not join the panel because it would not be discussing constitutional changes to curb the monarch's powers.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told Sky television the situation was under control. "Reforms are already in place ... in the last few weeks this has been speeded up," he said, adding the driving force behind the protests were economic issues.

"We have economic hardship but we have political stability, thank God."

(Reporting by Lina Ejeilat; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Jon Boyle)