Benghazi, Libyan rebels’ stronghold, hit by artillery and rocket fire

Video: Gaddafi's forces have retreated after French planes took out some Gaddafi tanks near Benghanzi and rebels captured several armored vehicles on their own. (March 20)

No one knew his age, but he looked no older than 5. He lay unconscious in a hospital intensive care room, tubes attached to his thin arms. A bullet had entered his chest, ripping through his frail body. His mother, too, was fighting for her life. Surgeons in the operating room were pulling shrapnel from her brain.

“Only God knows if they will survive,” said Ali Bashir, an emergency room doctor at Benghazi’s Jalla Hospital.

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A warplane crashed down over Benghazi on Saturday, as the opposition accused Moammar Gaddafi's government of defying calls for an immediate cease-fire. (March 19)

A warplane crashed down over Benghazi on Saturday, as the opposition accused Moammar Gaddafi's government of defying calls for an immediate cease-fire. (March 19)

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Mother and son were inside their car, fleeing the onslaught of Moammar Gaddafi’s forces that invaded their Benghazi neighborhood in tanks and trucks Saturday morning. After fierce street battles, after barrages of artillery and rockets pounding this rebel stronghold and cradle of Libya’s populist uprising, Gaddafi’s troops withdrew in the afternoon.

They left behind a city ruled by anguish and fear. It was a city that, at least for a few hours, felt a collective sense of betrayal by the international community for delaying action to stop Gaddafi from attacking its civilians.

It was a city startled by what it quickly metamorphosed into: a ghostly war zone filled with barricaded roads and shuttered shops, its rhythm dictated by armed men, heavy shelling and tons of bullets. As black plumes of smoke rose over this eastern coastal hamlet, thousands packed their cars and fled in the direction of the Egyptian border.

Bullets, perhaps stronger objects, tore into the car carrying the mother and her son, then tore through their bodies.

“We don’t need U.N. resolutions, words or meetings. We need action,” the doctor said with bitterness in his voice. “Where is the international community? We are running out of time.”

‘We haven’t lost’

Late Friday night, Gaddafi’s forces, backed by tanks, by pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and by groups of snipers, swiftly rolled down the highway linking Benghazi to the city of Ajdabiya, about 100 miles south. They reached the entrance to Benghazi early Saturday morning and began to bombard parts of the city.

About 6 a.m., shells began to rain down on Hay-al-Dolar, an affluent enclave. In one house, they destroyed two cars and peppered the walls with holes the size of baseballs. In another house, they shattered the windows.

Abdul Hakim Fadhil al-Bargati pointed at the gaping hole in the ceiling of his bedroom, where a shell hit as his wife, 9-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter and 4-month-old baby were sleeping. It sent debris and shrapnel onto the bed, injuring his wife and the two older children. Nearby were two blood-soaked pillows.

“As the roof fell, I leaned over to protect my baby,” said his wife, Hanan, who had a cast on her leg. “That’s why he survived.”

Their neighbor Mohammed, who feared giving his last name, was preparing to leave with his family of nine. A shell fell opposite his house. “We’ll look for another place safer than this,” he said. “Egypt, perhaps.”

About 8 a.m., a warplane was shot down over Benghazi, sending a huge ball of flames and smoke into the sky. Rebel leaders later said the plane was one of their own. Some said the plane had crashed because it was not mechanically sound, underscoring how asymmetrical the war against Gaddafi’s forces has been since the rebellion was launched from Benghazi a month ago.

“We have to go into machine shops to make parts for planes,” said Mustafa Gheriani, a rebel spokesman. But calls from mosques across the city suggested that friendly fire had brought down the plane.

“Don’t attack the airplanes because these are our planes,” a mosque preacher urged over loudspeakers.

By 8:30 a.m., Gaddafi’s forces had moved from the entrance to Benghazi past Garyounis University, heading to the center of Benghazi. As a Washington Post reporter made his way toward the area, rebel fighters in a red car coming from the other direction flashed their headlights and motioned to stop.

“Gaddafi’s men are on the bridge. I saw them with my own eyes,” a fighter said. “Turn back! Turn back!”

Heavily armed young men stood on street corners, some on pickups mounted with cannons or antiaircraft guns, others behind portable rocket launchers. Streets were blocked with trash cans, stones, steel beams, concrete blocks, tires, even bookcases.

Neighborhood protection forces formed across the city. Cars sped fast. Fighters grimly flashed victory signs at one another.

By 10 a.m., explosions and heavy gunfire could be heard around the city, continuing into the afternoon.

At the courthouse, the nexus of the rebellion, the crowds had thinned dramatically. Many of the youth activists were protecting the city. Others were afraid to come to the waterfront, where the courthouse is located. “Gaddafi struck the port with two or three rockets,” said Faraj el-Gheriani, no relation to Mustafa.

Top rebel officials were absent at the courthouse, save for one: Salwa el-Daghili, who said most of the rebel leadership was in emergency meetings. They had no plans to flee, she said.

“We’re still here,” she said. “We haven’t lost the war.”

‘There’s a war ahead’

Street battles erupted in several areas. In Tabalino Square, under an overpass, a two-hour battle raged, pitting Gaddafi’s tanks against young people wielding Kalashnikovs, machine guns and molotov cocktails.

Wissam Mohamed, 36, a software engineer living in the neighborhood, grabbed his rifle and joined the fight. The rebels captured four tanks and forced Gaddafi’s men to flee. The road on which Gaddafi’s forces came and left Benghazi was a tableau of destruction. At the university, two sport-utility vehicles belonging to Gaddafi’s men were in flames near a wall with graffiti that read: “Libya will never die.” Down the road were the carcasses of three buses gutted by fire, the smell of charred metal still wafting in the air. And on a light pole, someone had hung a Libyan government military uniform.

“Now, we have some tanks. Now, we have some heavy weapons, and we have God,” said Mohamed, as he stood next to one of the captured tanks. “This will help us.”

But as cars, some honking horns or draped with rebel flags, moved to the southwestern edge of Benghazi, a frantic rebel fighter stopped vehicles and cooled the sense of victory.

“There are snipers ahead,” he screamed. “Go back. There’s a war ahead.”

At the morgue of Jalla Hospital, crowds formed to view the bodies of eight of Gaddafi’s soldiers killed Saturday. Five were black Africans, hired by the 68-year-old leader to kill his own people, some in the crowd declared.

In another room were the bodies of rebel fighters. Men cried openly, as some cleansed the wounds of the dead, preparing them for burial. Outside, a preacher at a nearby mosque spoke over a loudspeaker, asking God to accept the martyrs into paradise.

In the intensive care unit, a new addition arrived. It was the mother who had brain surgery. Her head bandaged, she was wheeled into the room and placed next to her son. Unconscious, in a place saturated by war, their faces seemed most at peace.

 
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