How Qaddafi started losing Libya
Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and a long-time opposition hub, started a wave of rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi that is now closing in on Tripoli.
The ruins of the sprawling military barracks in Benghazi, where a group of angry youths took on Libyan troops and won, will likely be remembered as the place where Muammar Qaddafi's downfall became inevitable.Skip to next paragraph
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Charred barracks and interrogation buildings, dozens of burned cars, and holes punched through the base's cement perimeter by backhoes and trucks tell the story of two fierce days of fighting that saw the bulk of Colonel Qaddafi's mixed force of foreign mercenaries and loyalists driven from Libya's second-largest city.
The rout of Qaddafi's supporters here on the Mediterranean, and the defections of almost every local Air Force and Army unit, certainly seems a harbinger of his downfall.
There were credible reports Friday that military bases at Tajura and Misratah, near the capital of Tripoli, had also defected. If true, the remainder of Qaddafi's 41-year reign will probably be measured in days.
The fall of Benghazi
Faraj al-Nafi was one of the young men in Benghazi who took up stones, Molotov cocktails, and homemade bombs against pro-Qaddafi forces and their heavy caliber weapons on the evening of Feb. 17. A week later, he explains how he had gotten a call from relatives in Benghazi saying that change – real change – was possible. After making the 40-mile trip from his small farming town, he was soon on the front lines.
"We had the feeling that if Benghazi fell, then the whole stinking house of cards would come down," says Mr. Nafi, helping to search for survivors in the charred hulk of Qaddafi's personal guesthouse on the base, where deep bunkers housed torture and interrogation centers. "And now we're very, very close."
Nafi describes chaos and explosions for hours on Feb. 17. Others fell around him. He was untouched, but is still shaken by the experience. He estimates about 200 members of the revolt fell here in two days of fighting, against 22 casualties for Qaddafi's forces. Nafi and others insist the Qaddafi loyalists were a blend of members of the feared Revolutionary Guard and poor mercenaries hired from places like Chad and Nigeria.
The fall of the Benghazi barracks and the liberation of the city by Feb. 20 – together with the entire eastern third of the country – wasn't due only to the bravery of young demonstrators. After an assault by the protesters on Qaddafi's guesthouse was held off by determined resistance, a unit of Libyan special forces mutinied and joined in.
It also appears that while the ranks of protesters were swelling with trained soldiers – and getting stronger themselves with weapons raided from arms dumps at the barracks and other parts of the city – a tactical retreat was called by Qaddafi as fighting broke out in Tripoli.
How Qaddafi braced for the storm