Fear gives way to joy in Benghazi

 

Panic and fear gave way to relief and gratitude in Benghazi today, one day after rebels backed by foreign air strikes repulsed Muammar Gadafy's forces as they fought their way into the eastern Libyan city.

"If the French had not struck, we would be suffering now. They came in time," said Yunis Salem (52), an oil sector worker, sitting across the road from the courthouse serving as the rebel headquarters.

On the city outskirts, residents clambered over the wrecked tanks of Col Gadafy's forces and posed for pictures. Rebel fighters drove around perched on the back of pick-up trucks, occasionally firing blasts of gunfire in to the air.

People still milled around the dilapidated courthouse on Benghazi's seafront Corniche but the anxiety of recent days, when youths had clamoured for guns to fight advancing troops, had largely gone.

"Today we are feeling high," said Ameer Mari, a 23-year-old dental student. "Yes, we have a victory."

Regime forces reached the edge of Benghazi - a Mediterranean city of 700,000 people with a long history of opposition to his rule – yesterday and thousands of people fled as they shelled urban areas.

The French air strikes in the afternoon, the first since the United Nations passed a resolution on Thursday approving military action to protect civilians, averted what residents had no doubt would have been a massacre.

It was not clear what the exact rebel military plan now was or if they were capable of recapturing the towns along the coastal highway which they had taken then lost in the five-week uprising against Col Gadafy's 41-year authoritarian rule.

"They are continuing to fight Gadafy. He is still alive," Ibrahim Faraz, a member of the February 17th opposition coalition, said as he went inside the courthouse to meet officials. He also sounded a note of caution against the euphoria. "People are still worried. The bloodshed has not stopped," he said.

The student Mari echoed that view, saying he was concerned that infiltrators loyal to Col Gadafy were still in the city. "Gadafy has his dogs in Benghazi. It's a big problem. We don't know what they will do. So we are still scared," he said, speaking in a Libyan Red Crescent tent that was part of an encampment along the Corniche offering food, first aid, and other facilities for opposition supporters.

The pickup-mounted weaponry that had taken up position along the seafront yesterday had been removed, leaving only one jeep carrying a cannon overlooking the bay. A family of a husband and wife and three toddlers strolled along the seafront. The man placed one toddler on a defunct armoured vehicle across from the courthouse, wrapped him in the red, black and green rebel flag, and snapped his photograph.

Shops - usually open on Sundays in the Arab world - kept their shutters pulled down but should open again tomorrow. Residents said schools were likely to remain closed as children were still scared.