Africa

Libya rebels: Who holds key to security in Benghazi?

Libyans attend Friday prayers at Revolution Square in Benghazi, 27 May

Four months after the start of the popular uprising against Col Muammar Gaddafi, the rebel-held eastern Libyan city of Benghazi has regained a veneer of normality.

Today, Benghazi regularly receives foreign diplomats, and hosts droves of foreign journalists.

But even as it sheds its revolutionary colours and inches towards political stability, it remains guarded by bands of "irregulars" - armed civilians who form the city's main pillar of security.

The Transitional National Council (TNC) is widely accepted in the east as a legitimate political body representing Libya, and is being increasingly recognised as such internationally, but it remains unclear who holds the key to security, and ultimately to real power in Benghazi.

The charred remains of Col Gaddafi's brigade headquarters still stand in the middle of Benghazi, testimony to a battle recalled here with pride, passion, and lingering memories of terror.

The brigade - or Kateeba in Arabic - was chased out of the city by men armed mainly with the TNT they use for fishing.

Image caption Residents of Benghazi have taken up arms to guard the city against Gaddafi loyalists

One man, fast becoming a legend, packed his van with explosives and rammed it through the gate to open the way for the attack. On 22 February the Kateeba was defeated, and the city fell to the rebels.

The battle marked the end of Col Gaddafi's power in the city. Regular police had already withdrawn from the streets, having taken little or no part in attempts to put down growing protests.

But they were not spared the wrath of demonstrators, and most of the police stations were burnt down.

Power struggle

In the ensuing vacuum, local councils spontaneously formed, and armed civilians took responsibility for the security of their neighbourhoods.

Dressed in khaki uniforms and jeans, and armed with Kalashnikovs, they man checkpoints at night, and guard the city against the "fifth column", a common reference to Gaddafi loyalists who are said to roam the streets at night.

It is generally accepted in Benghazi that these armed irregulars are still needed.

Some of Col Gaddafi's forces are still only 180km (110 miles) from Benghazi, and the city is continuously buzzing with rumours of the activities of Gaddafi loyalists.

Image caption An effigy of Col Gaddafi hangs during Friday prayers in Benghazi

But some in the transitional council are asking if it is time to bring the irregulars under one official umbrella. The first attempts to do so have met with resistance.

When an announcement was made of a new internal security force, reaction on the street was swift. A small but furious crowd took to the street, protesting against the appointment of former regime officials, allegedly responsible for torture and killings, to sensitive positions.

A carefully worded statement from the protesters reaffirmed support for the transitional council, but accused "elements" of the former regime of retaining their positions.

The council took a step back, and the plans were temporarily shelved.

'Minister-like'

Digging around for an official line on security issues in Benghazi is no easy task, but we managed to reach one official who seemed to have some authority in the subject.

Ahmad Darrat is "in charge of internal affairs and local governance" in the TNC. It is "like an interior minister," he explained to the BBC, "but the council avoids that title because we are not a government until Tripoli is liberated."

Mr Darrat said the old police force, now back on the streets, was currently the only functioning official security force.

A new force in the making will be called Preventive Security, and aspire to merge all the irregular forces under its umbrella, he said.

"Everyone operates under the legitimacy of the TNC, and there is no resistance to the merger plans," Mr Darrat claimed.

But a civilian commander soon dismissed the suggestions. "Ahmad who?" he sneered, when I told him of the plans.

His faction is not planning on joining any preventive security force, he assured me. "The revolution belongs to the revolutionaries," he added.

Col Gaddafi is hated with a burning passion here, and the graffiti all around Benghazi is a constant reminder of this.

For now, the diverse groups of rebels are bound together by a common cause - removing Gaddafi and reuniting Libya.

But a lot depends on what happens next, and whether they will transform into political groups contesting power, or break into armed factions fighting for it.