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Libyans brace for Gaddafi offensive in rebel stronghold of Benghazi

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Benghazi, Libya — When Moammar Gaddafi’s warplanes struck near Benghazi’s airport Thursday, Abdul el-Warfali and Amna Mohammed reacted in opposite ways. Warfali brought his wife and baby daughter to the waterfront of this eastern port city, joining thousands of defiant anti-Gaddafi activists gathered there.

“Let Gaddafi come here,” Warfali declared. “Benghazi will become his tomb.”

Mohammed, though, left for Egypt.

The rebel stronghold was bracing for a major offensive by the Libyan leader’s loyalists, a battle that most expected to be fierce, bloody and likely to decide the fate of the month-old populist rebellion against Gaddafi’s 41-year grip on the country. The mood in the city hovered between fear and defiance, with residents buffeted by rumors and propaganda. There was also a collective sense of anger that the world’s inaction had allowed Gaddafi to regain strength and march toward their city.

On Thursday, the 68-year-old dictator warned the rebels that his forces would enter Benghazi overnight and target anyone who had opposed his rule.

“We’ll clean Benghazi, all of Benghazi, of the deviants and of anyone who tries to harm our leader and our revolution,” he said in a radio broadcast that aired repeatedly on Libyan state television. “We will show no mercy to collaborators.”

“Tomorrow,” he warned, “the whole world will watch Benghazi and see what will happen in it.”

Late Thursday night, celebrations punctuated by gunfire and mosque preachers chanting “God is great!” erupted across Benghazi moments after the U.N. Security Council approved military action to stop Gaddafi’s attacks and protect civilians.

“Gaddafi is dead!” screamed one resident, as cars sped by, their horns honking.

Gaddafi’s forces, backed by tanks, artillery and airpower, were about 90 miles southwest of Benghazi, along the main highway, by Thursday afternoon. Warplanes struck at least three times near Benina Airport, about 12 miles from Benghazi, and in a village just south of the city.

“I didn’t want to leave before,” said Mohammed, 49, as she stepped into a van along with other fleeing residents. “Our revolutionaries did well in the beginning, but when Gaddafi started shooting at us with his airplanes, I decided to leave.”

But most residents interviewed Thursday said they had no option but to stay and fight. Some said they thought Gaddafi’s forces were stretched and could never take over their city of about 1 million people. Others said they knew that Gaddafi would never spare them — Benghazi was the cradle of the rebellion — but that surrender was unthinkable.

“There is no turning back,” said Essam Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel leadership. “If you surrender, you will not be treated nicely. Gaddafi’s people will torture, rape or kill you. Everyone here expects this.”

But he added: “If you give up, you will die in disgrace. If you keep your weapons and fight back, you will at least die with honor.”

At the city’s southwestern entrance, concrete cylinders blocked the road. Rebel fighters standing near an antiaircraft gun checked vehicles for bombs and spies. In the city, fighters patrolled street corners, unlike previous days. Some clutched binoculars and peered into the cloudy sky.

Most stores were closed. Some streets were eerily silent as residents stayed indoors. Gaddafi, in one of his more bizarre decrees, had ordered shutters of storefronts and garages to be painted green, the color of the Libyan flag. Tellingly, many have remained green, and free of anti-Gaddafi graffiti, allowing owners to quickly blend back into Gaddafi’s state should he regain control of the city.

Still, there was no sense of urgency at the Salmani supermarket. People were not stockpiling food or water or otherwise preparing for a long siege. Store manager Walid Bakir offered an explanation, one heard in many nooks of the city.

“No one thinks Gaddafi can enter Benghazi,” said Bakir. “How could he? We are a million people here. Does he want to fight all of us?”

About 2 p.m., the radio crackled with the news: “The revolution has shot down three of Gaddafi’s warplanes!”

The rumor quickly spread. Streets near the airport, where the planes were supposedly brought down, were clogged with residents flashing victory signs and waving flags of Libya’s former monarchy, which have become symbols of the rebellion.

Atif el-Hasia, a medical doctor and member of a rebel committee, said he had traveled to the sites and found no planes had crashed. But he said Gaddafi intended the airstrikes — which came a couple of hours before the U.N. Security Council meeting — as a message of defiance.

“It’s to say: ‘I can reach you. I can do anything to you, and no one can stop me,’ ” Hasia said.

Khalid Mohammed, a businessman, was angry that Gaddafi was able to strike Benghazi. For a month, he said, he has been waiting for the international community to help, watching helplessly as the rebels gained, then lost their momentum against the dictator. Now, Mohammed was skeptical, despite the possibility the United Nations would help at last.

“We’ve lost hope that the United States and the international community will help,” said Mohammed, 42, who was at the waterfront with his two sons, ages 11 and 12. “What are they waiting for? Until Gaddafi kills all of us?”

Still, he said, “it is impossible to run away” at this stage. “I will fight Gaddafi until I die.”

Munir Garman, 28, said he expected more residents of Benghazi to flee in coming days. The taxi-agency owner said he had dispatched 30 vans Thursday to transport families out, mostly women and children, and was planning to rent more to handle the exodus. Everyone has headed to Egypt — not to Tobruk or other Libyan cities.

“Perhaps Gaddafi will target Tobruk next,” Garman explained.

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