Libya unrest: Benghazi gripped by anti-Gaddafi fervour

  • Published
Libyans hold the former royal flag as they drive past a demonstration against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi, 27 February 2011
Image caption,
Benghazi demonstrators have been celebrating the retreat of government forces in the east

Almost spontaneously, the Libyan city of Benghazi has been galvanised into action.

Residents have taken on the challenge of normal life just as dynamically as protesters took on Muammar Gaddafi's toughest troops.

Ayman Nas is on one of a series of committees that have sprung up.

"The banks started operating, and next week hopefully the schools will start and the university," he said.

"Yesterday we tried to maintain the police department... then the security, the education. Everything will be as normal, as before."

Zinedine is working frantically to produce placards for the protesters, mocking Col Gaddafi in a variety of languages.

I asked him who organised this whirlwind of activity.

"It happened spontaneously, everything has just fitted into place. I think this is destiny, it is fate. It is a wave that is spreading, and everything is just fitting into place. It is the will of the Gods."

At a secret location, I was given access to the Voice of Free Libya.

It is a makeshift radio station cobbled together after the state TV and radio headquarters was burnt down by protesters who were furious at the propaganda that used to be pumped out.

From somewhere they have found a mixing desk. Cables straggle around the room. Phones ring in the studio as they take calls from across Libya. The station beams a signal as far as Tripoli, in the west, and to neighbouring countries.

The presenter is urging all Libyans to take the battle to Tripoli itself. "We have to get to the capital," he exhorts listeners.

"You have to strike the final blow, you are the heroes, so let's march, let's crawl on Tripoli."

Playing for time

But is there a plan to make that happen?

At the town's air base they still have fighter jets and helicopter gunships that theoretically could be used as part of such an offensive.

The defection of this base was critical to the success of the protests here, and so to the protest movement across the country.

When Col Gaddafi's loyalists ordered the pilots to use the helicopters last weekend to attack protesters, the pilots played for time until it was dark and they could not fly.

Within hours the protesters had overwhelmed government forces in the middle of town. That success in Benghazi enabled the opposition to take control of the whole east of the country, and to challenge Col Gaddafi in Tripoli itself.

So I asked a senior officer at the base, Col Abdullah El Hassi, whether his forces would now take the offensive and join the battle for Tripoli.

"From the first day we took the side of the people's revolution and we are ready to stand up to any attacking forces," he told me.

But he added: "We have not been able to help our brothers in the western region for logistical reasons. We would like to do so, but the airspace has been closed, and there are ground-to-air missiles that we have to take care of. Until we are ready we cannot move further."

It is a key question. So far, much of the revolution has been a battle between protesters, armed only with improvised weaponry, fighting Col Gaddafi's forces.

Dizzy atmosphere

The government troops have been weakened by defections, and by the reluctance of the regular army and air force to fight.

Now Col Gaddafi is down to the inner core of his military, probably defended by the best equipped and trained unit, the Khamis brigade, led by one of his sons, Khamis.

If there are no more defections, this may be the moment that military units now loyal to the opposition begin to reorganise, reform, and move west towards the capital. But it is not clear there is any concerted plan or movement to do this yet.

At the end of my interview with the air force colonel, a slightly anarchic scene unfolded. They produced a picture of Col Gaddafi, then opened fire on it.

What was left of the picture was torn apart, spat on, and trodden underfoot, as they hooted car horns and fired on the air - all this in a base that was a loyal part of Col Gaddafi's military machine only just over a week ago.

It is all part of the slightly dizzy atmosphere here. There is a mixture of elation, grief and anger - a fervent hope and belief that life is utterly changing and about to get almost infinitely better.