BENGHAZI, Libya — The fighters who finished off the last of fallen leader Moammar Gaddafi’s forces returned to a hero’s welcome in the birthplace of the Libyan revolution on Saturday as thousands of flag-waving residents poured into the streets to cheer the convoy.
“God is great! God is great!” the crowd chanted as fighters in an assortment of green and blue camouflage rode on pickup trucks armed with machine guns and rocket launchers. The beaming troops, returning from the last holdout of Sirte, tossed candy to the crowd and flashed V-for-victory signs.
Libya’s interim government is expected to formally declare the war over and the country liberated on Sunday, eight months after anti-Gaddafi demonstrations erupted in Benghazi, triggering the first war of the Arab Spring.
International human rights groups have expressed alarm about indications that Gaddafi may have been killed in captivity by revolutionaries as Sirte fell Thursday. But no one at the parade here Saturday seemed disturbed by that possibility, recalling how the former leader jailed, tortured and killed thousands.
“We are very happy because Gaddafi was killed and humiliated,” said Mohanned Kaplan, 21, a geology student. Nearby, an ebullient group of young people chanted, “Too bad, nutcase!” referring to Gaddafi.
The crowd flanking the highway from Tripoli, 630 miles to the west, danced and ululated as the rusty pickups bearing the revolutionaries cruised through the streets. Many people solemnly saluted the returning fighters.
A giant red, green and black banner — the colors of the new Libyan flag — marked the spot where Gaddafi’s tanks were stopped at the city’s edge in March by the first NATO airstrike. Gaddafi had threatened to wipe out dissidents in the city.
As the parade proceeded, the air was filled with the pop of celebratory automatic-rifle fire and the boom of anti-aircraft and machine guns. Would the fighters voluntarily give up the weapons they had clearly come to cherish?
“Maybe some will not, but the majority, 95 percent, will certainly do so,” said Mahmoud Taher, 47, who had come out to enjoy the spectacle. “Libyans are not interested in weapons and fighting.”
Libyans in the crowd said they hoped their country would now enjoy things they could only dream about during the 42 years of virtual one-man rule by Gaddafi.
“It will be, like, modern, and open to the world,” Kaplan said. In the past, he said, “We couldn’t have trials.” Without being politically connected, he added, “we couldn’t set up companies.”
Faisal Gaddari, 29, a translator, said Gaddafi had discriminated against Benghazi, Libya’s second-biggest city.
“We didn’t have anything like new buildings. Everything he put in Sirte and Tripoli,” he said. “Now we hope with the new government, they will build all of Libya.”
Kaplan said most of those in the crowd had lost friends or relatives in the war. He had lost seven friends.
“When I remember this, I feel so, so, so, so sad,” he said. “But now, all Libyans are very happy — it’s extraordinary.”
In the past, Gaddari said, “if you say anything about Mr. Gaddafi, you will have big trouble.”
Now, he concluded, “We’re not afraid any more.”