Libyans brace for Gaddafi offensive in rebel stronghold of Benghazi
IN 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.