Benghazi celebrates no-fly zone, but distrusts Gaddafi's ceasefire
After a week of sinking into a swamp of fear at what might befall it at the hands of Muammar Gaddafi's forces, the rebel stronghold of Benghazi let loose a furious barrage of gunfire at the sky on Friday in relief at the UN security council's imposition of a no-fly zone to protect it from attack.
A matter of hours later, the city celebrated a second time as the Libyan dictator switched from bloodcurdling threats against his enemies to declaring a ceasefire. Some saw it as a sign of desperation and further evidence that the end of his rule is near. Others saw it as a wily move from a man who has learned a trick or two during 42 years in power that have seen him move from terrorist pariah to Tony Blair's embrace.
Neither the UN resolution nor the ceasefire amounted to the outright victory the rebels once thought was within their grasp – a victory that demands Gaddafi's departure.
But on Friday, Khalid Bader settled for what he had. "Yesterday, he wanted to kill us all. Today, he cannot touch us because the world will not let him," said Bader, a 52-year-old engineer standing among the celebratory crowds gathered in front of the revolutionary headquarters on the city's waterfront. "Now the French and the British planes must come and attack. When they do, even his own people will leave him. There is no loyalty to Gaddafi. There are two people – Gaddafi and his son. That's it. No one else believes in this regime."
The crowds spent Friday on Benghazi's seafront firing weapons, waving the revolutionaries' flag and chanting now-familiar slogans against the dictator with renewed vigour. Some waved French tricolours in recognition of Paris's role in pressing the UN in to action.
Where once there was scepticism about foreign involvement, there is now gratitude. Some feel that the west's involvement is not only necessary but also a moral responsibility given its support for Gaddafi in recent years, including the British training of parts of his army. But the broad objection to foreign troops on Libyan soil remains; a reflection not only of a long and bitter history, including Italian occupation, but also of the television pictures of the consequences of having US soldiers in Iraq.
Among those who had most reason to be relieved at the sudden change in fortunes, which even the most hopeful of the rebels had begun to think would never come, were members of the revolutionary council singled out on Gaddafi-controlled state television. They include Essam Gheriani, a spokesman for the council. "They read out our names on television. It was a message who to kill," he said.
Gheriani applauded the UN no-fly resolution but was considerably more sceptical about the self-declared ceasefire. "This resolution has avoided a great deal of bloodshed, because the revenge Gaddafi would take in Benghazi would have been worse than anything we've seen before even in a city where he had mass hangings in public," he said. "It has been a great morale booster. This was an international community that for once gave priority to human lives over economic interests."
But the ceasefire was another matter. Some saw it is an act of desperation by Gaddafi to stave off what looked to be imminent air strikes by France and Britain. If the government is no longer attacking rebel positions and threatening towns held by the revolutionaries, then Tripoli would arguably be in compliance with the UN security council's demands and there would be no grounds for the air strikes.
Selwa Bugaighis, a member of the revolutionary council, said she suspected that Gaddafi intended to divide the country. He may have recognised that he can no longer put down the uprising, she said, so he had decided to hang on to what he already controls.
"When you cannot have the whole sandwich, he has to make do with a bite," she said. "He has played his last card and it is another mistake. He's committed several mistakes since the beginning that have just made it worse for himself. His last mistake was to threaten to deal with the civilian population of Benghazi ruthlessly. How did he think the rest of the world would react?"
Gheriani said the revolutionary council would not agree to a ceasefire. Instead it intends to test Gaddafi by calling for fresh uprisings in those cities he still controls or has recently taken back at a high cost in lives, such as Zawiya.
"This is a man who can't be trusted. There is no such thing as a ceasefire on our part," said Gheriani. "We will encourage our people in the occupied cities to rise up. The UN resolution will give impetus to new uprisings because it calls for their protection. If Gaddafi shoots people for standing for freedom then he will be back at war, and the west will take action. If blood has to be spent, it is in an honourable cause."
Gheriani also hopes that the ceasefire does not prevent air strikes because he believes they will be a crushing blow to support for Gaddafi within the ruling elite. "We know that their loyalty to him is not genuine. Those who serve him are under threat. Their families are under threat. We think this human factor will come into play once they realise the end is near."
The revolutionaries still have to decide what to do about their own military forces. Do they press ahead in the expectation that Gaddafi's army will now stand aside? Do they provoke a confrontation because it will bring action by France and Britain?
That question was still being answered for the rebels hours after the ceasefire was declared. Witnesses continued to tell of attacks by Gaddafi's army on the two areas that have been the focus of the government's recent attacks, Misurata in the west and Ajdabiya, where the rebels were losing a bloody battle for control of the town seen as the gateway to Benghazi.
For the crowds on the seafront, relief at the events of the previous few hours was tinged by accounts of events in Ajdabiya. Abdullah Mohammed Abullah Kaderbo arrived at the Benghazi waterfront looking exhausted and agitated not long after Friday prayers with a tale of fresh devastation.
Kaderbo, a 51-year-old rescue worker, had finally fled Ajdabiya after the government's assault grew too intense, giving up his search for his brother. He told of a wave of rocketing from the north of the town after the UN security council passed the no-fly resolution, and more attacks on Friday.
"Rockets were falling everywhere. After the security council resolution they became even more crazy and intensive," he said. "I cannot say how many are dead, but 300 houses were destroyed. We were not even digging for bodies, only helping those who were on top of the rubble."
Kadero said that he saw several casualties including seven members of the Al Mahashas family, children among them, who were killed by the shelling shortly before the government announced the ceasefire.
"There are no ambulances. There's no help," he said.