Benghazi, Libya’s second city, spent a fearful night on Monday amid reports that Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader wanted to bomb it into submission after it fell to protesters seeking to bring down his regime.
The pilots of two Libyan fighter jets who landed in Malta on Monday told the authorities there that they defected after they were ordered to bomb protestors in Benghazi.
In a dramatic reversal, residents of the city had seized control of it after an army unit switched sides and helped them overcome security services loyal to Mr Gaddafi the leader who now faces a spreading popular revolt.
After four days of street confrontations in which at least 200 local people were killed, residents said Benghazi was calm and that citizen committees were being put in charge of running it.
“There’s no more fighting in Benghazi. Our people are establishing and organising themselves into committees to protect public and private institutions,” said Sohail al-Atrash. “We do not see any soldiers on the streets any more, nobody is threatening us.”
TRIBAL MEMBERSHIP DIVIDES LOYALTIES
There are more than 100 different tribes and subtribes in Libya, writes Sarah Mishkin.
The four key tribes are the Meqarha, the Zuwiyya, the Warfalla and the relatively small Gadafa, Colonel Gaddafi’s own tribe.
Tribal leadership plays an important role in the country, particularly as the government forbade nearly all other forms of civil society, said Ronald Bruce St John, an author of seven books on Libya.
Col Gaddafi had sought to placate tribal leaders and win their support by appointing them to local governing councils, but he kept the real prize of military and security appointments for the Gadafa.
The announcement by leaders of the Zuwiyya and Warfalla tribes, which are among the Libya’s largest, that they no longer support the government threatens an important pillar of support for current Libyan government. The Zuwiyya, who are concentrated in the east, are in a position to obstruct the nation’s oil exports, as the tribe’s leader has already threatened to do, said Mr St John.
More importantly, said one analyst, the tribes’ announcement means members of the army and security forces who are in those tribes find themselves with their loyalty split between tribe and nation and may be more likely to defect to the side of the protesters.
“If the head of a tribe comes out against the regime, the young officers who belong to that tribe . . . will have divided loyalties,” said Peter Cole, a risk analyst who studies Libya.
Analysts say the momentum of the uprising may be such that tribal positions are less important in shaping the uprising than other issues, such as the loyalty of the army.
Mostapha el-Gheriani, an engineer, said citizens now had “total control”.
“We are praying for them in Tripoli,” he said referring to the capital to which the protests had spread on Sunday.
“People here are celebrating and burying their dead. This is just a joyful occasion and we are safeguarding against any unexpected events that might take place. We know the tyrant is still around.”
Mr Gheraini was speaking against a background of blaring car horns sounded by jubilant drivers celebrating what they see as the end of Col Gaddafi’s rule.
Foreign journalists are forbidden from entering Libya and the authorities have cut the internet and some phone communications, so the reports are impossible to verify independently.
The uprising, which is still raging across Libya, has been fiercest in the east where resentment against Col Gaddafi’s rule has traditionally run deep. The region was the target of a security crackdown in the 1990s when the Libyan Islamic Fighting group, an Islamist group, took up arms against the Libyan state and attacked military and police targets from a mountain hide-out.
Benghazi residents say that on Sunday the balance of power shifted in favour of the protesters when members of an army unit sided with local people who had surrounded the al-Fadil Omar base housing security forces loyal to the Gaddafi family.
Troops from the camp were said to have opened fire in the morning on mourners burying the bodies of protesters killed on previous days. Some were also said to have driven through neighbourhoods shooting indiscriminately at the population.
“The army co-operated with the people and we managed to overcome them,” said Mohamed al- Mehrek, a businessman. “Some fled, some were killed and those who surrendered were handed over to the army.” He said the security services loyal to Col Gaddafi included African mercenaries brought in from sub-Saharan countries.
“When the soldiers joined on the side of the people, it put an end to the confrontation,” he said. “We are an unarmed people, but we were facing weapons just with our chests.”
Mr Mehrek said the soldiers who supported the protesters came from a unit of special forces. It is not known if others in the army have sided with protesters. On Monday, Benghazi residents said they were afraid the air force would pound them as Mr Gaddafi sought to regain control of the region.
The position of the army is fundamental to the nature of the resolution of the Libyan crisis. In Egypt and Tunisia, where popular uprisings in recent weeks ended the rule of repressive leaders, the military refused to use force to quell demonstrations by citizens demanding a change of regime.
Dr Ahmed Ben Taher, who works at the al-Galaa hospital in Benghazi, said the army unit intervened with tanks and personnel carriers to protect protesters surrounding the al-Fadil Omar camp.
Before that there had been a “massacre” outside the camp, where 60 people were killed.
The military, he said, evacuated the dead and wounded before engaging loyalists inside the camp in gun battles until most fled or surrendered.
“People are still anxious,” he said. “The army’s position is still not clear. But we want to urge the international community to hurry up and help us.
“We are having shortages in medical materials and the regime is preventing fresh supplies sent from Tripoli from arriving.”
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