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LIBYA: Benghazi Stands Firm Against Gaddafi’s Gains

Mike Elkin

BENGHAZI, Libya, Mar 13 2011 (IPS) - The red, green and black flag-waving Libyans calling for the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi are staging a show of force in Benghazi. The support for the three-week-old revolution comes at the rebels’ lowest military moment.

Gaddafi’s forces have reportedly taken control of the western city of Zawiya and pushed the rebels back from the oil port of Ras Lanuf to the nearby town of Brega with a barrage of airstrikes and artillery shelling. And on Sunday came reports that Brega has fallen to Gaddafi’s forces.

Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, said Thursday that his father’s forces will begin to rout the rebellion and attack Benghazi. But Libya’s second-largest city responded with one of its largest anti-Gaddafi rallies to date.

“Gaddafi has been spreading rumours since day one,” said Mustafa Gheriani, who handles media relations for the shadow government in Benghazi. “Our answer (to Saif Al-Islam) is what you saw at the protest.

“They have machine power, but not people power. How long can someone last when the people don’t want him? It’s a question of time and, of course, the human price.”

The rebel council has repeatedly asked the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to end Gaddafi’s airstrikes, and also to bomb Gaddafi strongholds.

Gheriani said that Saif Al-Islam’s threats will only hasten the implementation of a no-fly zone – that rebels are still waiting desperately for.

“The West seems to be looking for approval from the Arab League,” Gheriani said. “A military response from the international community will not only help us fight Gaddafi, but will also have an impact on the people around him.

“They’ll realize that he is a rogue and that no one wants to deal with him. These people will only fight for a leader up to a point. This isn’t someone with a strong ideology, he’s a thug. It’s only a matter of time before they turn their backs on Gaddafi.”

On Friday, the European Union held an emergency summit in Brussels on Libya. France, which has already recognised the rebel government, is pushing for military action while other European leaders limit their condemnation of Gaddafi to strong language.

The African Union has already rejected the idea of foreign military intervention in Libya. The Gulf Arab states called the Gaddafi regime illegitimate. The much awaited Arab League meeting on Saturday failed to pave the way for a no-fly zone.

With rebel forces pulling back, however, the question in Benghazi is whether Gaddafi has the military capacity to actually invade and hold Benghazi, a city of nearly one million people which has clashed with Gaddafi before. Gaddafi supporters are hard to find in Benghazi.

Locals have shrugged off the idea. “Even if Gaddafi’s army could drive into Benghazi, the city would tear them apart,” said one man who asked not to be named, holding his grandson.

During Friday prayers around midday, one of the two rebel warships docked in Benghazi patrolled the coast. A day earlier, a civilian ship with Gaddafi loyalists and loaded with artillery had shelled Ras Lanuf.

“Benghazi is out of Gaddafi’s reach,” Gheriani said. “He could bomb the city if a plane got through the anti-aircraft guns, but besides that we are safe. We will win or we will die. And I think they’ll run out of ammunition before they can get rid of all of us.”

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