Libya: Opposition hopes for new era in Benghazi

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Benghazi

Image caption,
Benghazi residents have been celebrating their victory over the elite government troops

The northern Libyan city of Benghazi is the beginning and crux of the revolt against Col Muammar Gaddafi.

When local people there came out to protest last week, they were fired on from a huge army base in the centre of the city with heavy artillery, including anti-aircraft guns.

In response, they simply took on the army, with homemade petrol bombs.

They loaded construction site vehicles with petrol and rammed them against the walls of the barracks, and ground down the troops inside.

After two or three days of bitter fighting - with the aid of some defection from the government side - they took the base, defeating some of the country's most elite forces.

It is now a kind of local tourist attraction, people are wandering around looking at what was inside.

'Gunfire all around'

By Monday, Benghazi was safely in opposition hands but it is tense because of the bitterness of the fighting. People say 300 protesters and 120 members of the government forces were killed.

There is also a worry that government supporters may be hunkered down here, hoping for better days, and that prisoners have escaped and may loot.

Benghazi is now in the control of a committee of judges, lawyers, business people and academics. They are running the city from the local court house.

They have put up signs everywhere urging people to go back to work - urging bakers and pharmacists, even government employees to get the place going again. And on the face of it, it does seem to be working.

Someone joked that the traffic is running more smoothly, and people driving more carefully, than they were under Col Gaddafi.

Some people from the city have armed themselves with looted weapons. Those people are now heading west, to oust Col Gaddafi's forces from their remaining strongholds in the rest of the country.

Benghazi is also a big centre for the evacuation of foreign nationals. There are thousands and thousands of foreigners of all nationalities at the port.

As word spread that the British Navy frigate HMS Cumberland was arriving there, British citizens began arriving from across Libya.

Image caption,
HMS Cumberland evacuated about 200 people from Libya, taking them to Malta

Despite criticism of the British government's slow response to the crisis, the commander of the ship, Cpt Steve Dainton, said they had made all speed to get here.

"From all points of view we've reacted very quickly," he said.

"In that time from three days ago we've managed to head up to Crete, take a suck of fuel, embark a whole heap of stores and extra personnel and be down here, which I think is a pretty fast response."

Some workers had travelled hundreds of miles from remote desert compounds in southern Libya, some had just come from the city. All were delighted the Royal Navy had come to rescue them.

Sue Rogers said she had been in Benghazi itself, and heard the battles.

"It was gunfire all around," she told the BBC.

"All the smoke was happening at the military installations all around. It started off just with simple gunfire and then it got worse, with heavy artillery fire."

HMS Cumberland took around 200 British Nationals out of Libya.

There are also other, larger ships taking nationals, particularly from East Asia and also Turkish nationals - three large ships taking them out from here.