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Battle at army base broke Gadhafi hold in Benghazi

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By PAUL SCHEMM
The Associated Press
Friday, February 25, 2011; 5:04 PM

BENGHAZI, Libya -- The young men of Benghazi pounded the dreaded military barracks in the city center with everything they could find. They threw stones and crude bombs made of tin cans stuffed with gunpowder. They drove bulldozers into its walls. All under a blaze of gunfire from troops inside that literally tore people in half.

More than 100 were killed in three days of fighting. But in the end, the base fell and Moammar Gadhafi's forces fled, executing comrades who refused to shoot.

The assault on the base known as the "Katiba" was the defining battle in the fall of Libya's second largest city to the opposition uprising that has swept away Gadhafi's rule in the eastern half of the country.

Now children clamber over the abandoned tanks inside the base and families drive around inside the sprawling compound, gawking at what for years had been a sort of feared Bastille, where detainees disappeared and where Gadhafi stayed when he was in town.

The revolt in Benghazi, about 580 miles (940 kilometers) east of Tripoli, began with protests that centered in the square outside the city's courthouse overlooking the Mediterranean.

Thousands held rallies there for several days, turning it into a Libyan version of Egypt's famous Tahrir Square. On Feb. 17, the protests turned deadly, when troops opened fire, killing 14.

The next day, a funeral procession of thousands made its way to the cemetery, filing past the Katiba.

Accounts differ on whether mourners began throwing stones first or the soldiers of the Katiba opened fire without provocation. But the result was a massacre, with the city's main Al-Jalaa Hospital alone reporting 24 deaths in its morgue and hundreds of wounded.

On Feb. 19, a new procession thousands strong carried the dead from the previous day and once more passed the Katiba to the cemetery in an act of defiance.

"The people whose brothers had died the day before were in the first rank and they were the first to start throwing rocks," recalled Aboul Qassim Bujezia. "The soldiers in the Katiba opened fire and everyone in the first rank died."

The slight 27-year-old lay in his bed at home, recovering from his wounds that day. His father proffers an X-ray showing the 7.62 mm Kalashnikov slug lodged in the muscle of Bujezia's calf. The doctors say it is too dangerous to remove for now.

"People around me were shot in the neck, head and eye, some twice, God was with me that day," Bujezia said, describing how under heavy gunfire that day, the wounded were ferried to safety.


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