Thursday, February 24, 2011

Libyan city celebrates freedom from Qadhafi

TOBRUK, February 24, 2011

Thousands in the coastal town of Tobruk celebrated their freedom from Muammar Qadhafi by waving flags of the old monarchy, honking horns and firing guns in the air around a city square where he once executed people.

Officers in the army units that had defected to the rebellion against Libya's leader for the past four decades pledged Wednesday to defend this "liberated territory" with their lives, despite Mr. Qadhafi's threats a day earlier to retake it.

"The army in the east is with all the people," declared Maj. Salma Faraj Issa, a top aide to the general commanding the army units from Tobruk. Those units rebelled against Mr. Qadhafi after being ordered to open fire on people.

"We're ready for him if he does attack. We have rocket launchers and other weapons. We know there will be deaths, but we are prepared," said Issa, a woman wearing fatigues, with dyed blond hair and gold eye shadow.

Mr. Qadhafi's hold on the rest of the country slipped further amid an uprising spreading across the Arab world, inspired by the toppling of leaders in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia. Cities and towns closer to the capital of Tripoli reportedly fell into the hands of the rebellion against his rule. Two air force pilots ejected from their fighter jet and let it crash in the desert rather than follow orders to bomb.

In Tripoli, a force of militia roamed the streets to keep demonstrators from gathering.

Issa and her commanding officer arrived in Tobruk with several cars and trucks bursting with uniformed soldiers that came to join the demonstration in the main square. Some fired assault rifles in the air. In the distance could be heard the heavy staccato of a belt-fed machine gun.

The various military units in the east have now unified their command into a single operations room, said Lt. Col. Omar Hamza of an air defence brigade as he watched the demonstrations from the street.

"They are trying to convince the others (army units in the west) to join them," he said, and were looking for ways to help the people of Tripoli, which many in the town said they had heard were being killed in large numbers.

Residents echoed the soldiers' defiance, saying they would die before accepting Mr. Qadhafi's rule again as each stepped forward to express their hatred for their long-time leader.

The raucous celebration just five days after Mr. Qadhafi lost control of this port town may have stemmed in part from the presence of journalists, just now trickling across the nearby Egyptian border.

Libyans were eager to make sure the world knew about their struggle against Mr. Qadhafi and the many crimes he committed, whether it was imprisoning their relatives or squandering the country's oil wealth on adventures in Africa instead of spending it at home.

"You see this town," said resident Ali Mohammed, gesturing to the ramshackle main square and modest buildings. "It is small. There have been no changes over the years because our petrol money goes to African mercenaries and nuclear weapons to protect Qadhafi."

Spray-painted anti-Qadhafi graffiti covered many of the buildings around the square, which was overlooked by a burned-out police station and a small, single storey building that had also been gutted by fire.

"This is the place where they gathered information about people who didn't like Muammar," said Mohammed, pointing to the local branch of the Revolutionary Committees.

According to Mr. Qadhafi's ideas of permanent revolution, the country was governed by a decentralized system of local committees that would see to the people's needs. Most described them now as corrupt and oppressive, and their headquarters were torched around the country when the demonstrations began.

People just wanting to apply for advanced degrees would have to go to the committee headquarters and prove their support for the leader, a process that could take months, Mr. Mohammed said.

Residents described arbitrary cuts in water or electricity but were unable to appeal to any kind of local government, as lodging complaints with the Revolutionary Committees could result in imprisonment.

Unlike most in this town filled with young people, Hossein Hossi has gray hair and can remember the days before Mr. Qadhafi's 1969 overthrow of King Idris, the monarch whose flag has become the new emblem of the revolution.

Tobruk, which was the site of a famous World War II battle for control of North Africa and houses a cemetery for the Allied dead, once hosted regular visitors from Britain and other countries, he recalled. Since Mr. Qadhafi came to power, they were cut off.

He also described in horror how during one Ramadan in 1986 Mr. Qadhafi ordered nightly hangings in the main square.

"In 42 years, he turned Libya upside down," said Mr. Hossi. "Here the leader is a devil. There is no one in the world like him."

It was on February 17 that Tobruk started to shake itself free of Mr. Qadhafi's long rule, as young people demonstrated in the main square and then threw rocks and stones at the police station when they were fired at.

"After seeing what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, people thought that if they stayed together they could have an effect," said Matog Saleh, 22, trying to explain why the people finally rose up after so long.

"There is not one person down there that doesn't have a bad story from him," he said while standing on the roof of the mosque watching the demonstrators wave flags and anti-Qadhafi signs in the square below. "Everyone has a relative that they don't know where they are."

Other than the burned-out symbols of the old regime, Tobruk seems intact and residents say that, at least for now, everything seems to be running fine in the total absence of central authority.

People came together to form public defence committees to provide security and they have opened up welfare organisations to ensure people have enough to eat.

On the roads outside of town, near the new security checkpoints, residents handed out bottled water and juice to passing motorists, while flashing the victory sign to celebrate the uprising.

"I'm actually proud to be a Libyan now. My people have put themselves in front of tanks and airstrikes to get rid of dictator," Saleh said.

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