Allied warplanes fired missiles here early Sunday, witnesses said, and by dawn, the idyllic countryside was an apocalyptic landscape. The airstrikes, led by France, carved a trail of devastation that stretched more than 15 miles along the highway to Ajdabiya, another city under siege by forces loyal to Gaddafi.
The destruction brought a new hope to Libyan rebels seeking to end Gaddafi’s 41-year-long rule. Less than 24 hours earlier, they were on their heels as Gaddafi’s tanks and trucks pushed into Benghazi, the cradle of Libya’s month-old rebellion, raining a barrage of artillery and rockets that transformed the city of 1 million people into a lifeless shadow of itself.
A spokesman for the rebels told the television network al-Jazeera on Sunday that more than 8,000 Libyans who had joined their movement had been killed in the revolt. There was anger among residents and rebel fighters at what they called the international community’s slowness in authorizing a no-fly zone and other measures to stop the growing tide of civilian casualties.
But after the missiles landed, such sentiments evaporated.
“The French planes did this,” yelled Walid Abdsalam Houas, a 25-year-old fighter who waved his Kalashnikov in triumph. “I feel so good. This is the best feeling I have had in a long time.”
The airstrikes in the early hours of Sunday were the first evidence of the military intervention by the United States and its European allies in this part of eastern Libya. The assault on Gaddafi’s ground forces is expected to have delivered a significant blow to his ambitions of retaking Benghazi and perhaps laying siege to other cities.
“We hope this will help us liberate our brothers in Misurata and Zawiyah,” said Adam al-Libi, 29, a rebel fighter, referring to two other cities under siege by Gaddafi’s forces. There were reports Sunday that government tanks had entered Misurata, another sign of Gaddafi’s defiance of the West.
Along the highway, eight tanks and a similar number of armored personnel carriers were reduced to mangled clumps of searing-hot metal. Russian Grad missile launchers, pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, amphibious armored vehicles and tank transport carriers also were destroyed, their carcasses littering the sides of the road.
The amount of heavy weaponry Gaddafi had massed along the highway suggested that his forces were preparing for a major siege of Benghazi. Less than five miles from Benghazi, Gaddafi loyalists had scrawled on a wall: “We are here to fight the rats,” a reference to Gaddafi’s labeling of the rebels as “rodents.”
Although rebel fighters had repelled the Saturday attack inside the city and pushed the loyalists out, many residents expected Gaddafi’s forces to reenter their neighborhoods Sunday. Most stores remained shut, and traffic was thin for much of the day.
But thousands of people took the highway out of Benghazi, despite reports of snipers loyal to Gaddafi lurking in nearby buildings, to see the results of the allied airstrikes. Many shot photos and videos using cellphones.
“There’s a burned body inside,” yelled Imad Susi, 30, a driver, as he stood on top of a charred camouflage-green tank.
After peering inside, his friend Rajab Omar Muhammed, 46, shook his head as he surveyed the amount of destroyed heavy weaponry around him. He said the rebels, with their light weapons, would never have been able to inflict such damage on Gaddafi’s superior military. “If they had entered Benghazi, we could never have destroyed them like this.”
“We’ve never seen this kind of weaponry,” Susi said. “Gaddafi bought all of this with people’s money.”
Another man stood behind an immobilized tank, surrounded by boxes full of grenades and rocket shells. “These are the rats,” he said, spitting at the tank.
The detritus from the airstrikes included the mundane: pieces of uniforms, crumpled plates, cigarettes, apples, cans of tomatoes and small soap bars. There was also the grisly: corpses lying next to each other, near mattresses, signs that Gaddafi’s soldiers were fast asleep when the missiles rained on them.
People peered at the bodies; some took weapons and ID cards from them. Five of the corpses appeared to be dark-skinned, and everyone who saw them reached the same conclusion: They were black African mercenaries paid by Gaddafi to kill his own people.
One man cursed the dead. But others covered them with blankets, determined to be good Muslims at a time when hatred reigned.
“Don’t touch the bodies,” yelled Salah Najim, 30, a businessman. “We must respect the bodies. We must bury them.”
His words were futile, and soon he gave up. But even he felt a sense that his future had been altered by a few very destructive minutes Sunday morning.
“This is going to help us 100 percent,” he said of the allied airstrikes, as more people peeled away the blankets to view the corpses. “Next, we will go forward to Ajdabiya.”
By Sunday night, Gaddafi’s forces still appeared to control the entrance to Ajdabiya, 99 miles south of Benghazi. But the rebels had regrouped and were pressing in, according to opposition fighters and residents.
As the rebels passed the scorched field of flowers and headed toward Ajdabiya, what they saw would have encouraged them further:
More smoldering armored personnel carriers, including one flipped on its side. A shattered and burned long-bed truck, meant to carry tanks. And more bodies of Gaddafi’s soldiers, covered in blankets, lying on a stretch of charred highway littered with bullet casings.