Fear, death and waiting in Libyan rebel stronghold

AP News
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Posted: Mar 19, 2011 3:17 PM
Fear, death and waiting in Libyan rebel stronghold

Hospital workers in this rebel-held city on Libya's coast laid out the bodies in their morgue Saturday in three groups: soldiers who tried to seize the city for ruler Moammar Gadhafi, rebels who fought to keep them out, and civilians who died in the crossfire.

All three are parts of the battle for this city _ Libya's second largest _ whose fate could determine whether Western intervention can stop Gadhafi from stamping out the rebellion seeking to end his 42-year rule.

"This city is a symbol of the revolution," Essam Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition. "It's where it started and where it will end if this city falls."

The day in Benghazi _ a palm-lined, beachfront city of 680,000 built on the site of an ancient Greek port _ started with fighter planes and ended with the promise of them.

Early in the morning, a jet caught fire over the city and crashed on its outskirts, prompting celebratory gunfire and cries of "God is great!" from the rebels who have made the city their de facto capital since seizing it five weeks ago. After dusk, the French government said its jets were patrolling Libyan airspace, the first signs of an international military force seeking to stop Gadhafi's troops.

For residents, the rest of the day was filled with fear, fighting and concern that international forces would be too late to keep Gadhafi's forces from seizing the city.

Early Saturday, government tanks and artillery pounded Benghazi's southern edge, followed by irregular troops and Gadhafi loyalists trying to punch through to the city center. Rebels battled to keep them out through urban guerrilla attacks with AK-47s and firebombs, residents said.

Two charred cars littered the Tripoli road on the southern edge of the city, where there was heavy fighting. In the Tabolino neighborhood nearby, a pharmacy on the ground floor of a three-story building was in rubble, and a neighboring boarded-up grocery store's front had been hit by a shell, leaving it in chunks of concrete and twisted metal.

"It's a cat-and-mouse fight here," said Abu Seif Abdul-Aziz, a rebel fighter outside the pharmacy. "We're sure he'll (Gadhafi) try again."

Shamsi, a 55-year-old resident who hunkered down in a house on Benghazi's southern outskirts and saw government tanks rumble down his street, pleaded for the world powers to intervene.

"For humanitarian reasons, the international community must step in now," he said, calling on the United Nations to act on Thursday's Security Council resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya. "We're running out of time."

He and other residents declined to give their last names for fear of retribution should the town fall.

Around Benghazi, young men toting AK-47S blocked off streets with refrigerators, bed frames, logs and trash bins anticipating the arrival of troops.

Others filled cans with gunpowder and soda bottles with gasoline to make homemade bombs. They vowed not to abandon the city.

"He can't fight with us in the streets," said Salah, 42, a travel agent. "If need be, we will protect our families, our children, our women."

By mid-afternoon, the shelling and fighting in the city's southwestern suburbs had started filling up the Jalaa hospital morgue. the bodies of eight rebel fighters lay together on the bloodstained floor, placed in olive green body bags. Some were missing limbs, others riddled with bullets.

A doctor in military uniform opened an ammunition box to show the remains of two rebel fighters.

"Gadhafi's work, Gadhafi's work," men in the white-tiled morgue shouted.

A nearby room held the bodies of eight government soldiers, most in military fatigues. Two were missing legs. Two dead civilians lay nearby, covered by blankets.

Upstairs, a 5-year-old boy with gunshot wounds peppering his chest lay unconscious between two wounded rebels.

Dr. Ahmed Radwan said the boy was driving with his parents when they came under fire. His father was killed immediately, and his mother was in the operating room, having bullets removed.

"As far as wounds, we've seen everything today," Radwan said. "Gunshots to the legs and chest. Some people were shot in half. More people have been killed than wounded, which is rare."

He said the hospital had recorded 22 dead by late afternoon.

Outside, Mohammed Mehdi wept for the death of his friend Hussein Ibrahim, 27, a rebel killed in the day's fight. "He was like a brother to me," Mehdi said, bowing his head to hide his tears.

A half-dozen men shouldered a simple wooden coffin containing a dead rebel, chanting "God loves martyrs!" as they left the morgue.

"The key word here is time," said Dr. Ali Bashir. "We are running short on time to stop this massacre. We need action immediately."

By nightfall, help appeared close. After an emergency 22-nation summit in Paris, French President Nicholas Sarkozy said French jets had entered Libya's skies, part of a summit decision "to put in place all the means necessary, in particular military" to stop Gadhafi's troops.

When night fell in Benghazi and a full moon rose, men shuffled to mosques as the call to prayer echoed over the city and residents eagerly awaited signs of allied jets in the sky.

"We need to see action," said Gheriani, the opposition spokesman, adding that the French should strike Gadhafi's troops waiting outside the city. "We expect them to carry it out now."