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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.

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Col. Hussein al-Murfali, the head of the air wing at Benina Airfield on the outskirts of Benghazi, says it seems that Qaddafi knew a storm was coming. Early on Feb. 17, a Thursday, an order was sent to fly fighter planes and helicopters in Murfali's command to Sirte – Qaddafi's hometown and his second major stronghold after Tripoli.

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Soon, members of the Revolutionary Guard (the "revolution" referring to is the 1969 coup led by Qaddafi and a few hundred soldiers) arrived to take small arms away from the base. The Air Force officers and men were then placed under armed guard and kept in a small set of offices for three days. "We were told if any of us came outside, we'd be shot," says the colonel.

He says many of the pilots who took off for Sirte instead diverted to eastern Libya and defected. On Friday, when a man arrived to tell Murfali that his remaining helicopters should start flying missions against demonstrators – he relayed the orders to his men, but with the proviso, "I wouldn't obey this order and suggest you do the same."

It was a dangerous moment; the day before, Revolutionary Guards had executed six officers who refused orders at the Benghazi barracks. "We knew about the officers at the barracks. But it wasn't really a choice," says Murfali. "We're supposed to obey orders. But orders to shoot our sons, our daughters, our family? No. There was no way any of us were going to do it."

He says two pilots who'd been dispatched from Benghazi to Sirte on Feb. 17 later ejected from their plane over the desert after receiving orders to strafe the resistance here.

In eastern Libya, fear of air power remains strong. But the Air Force officers here say those in the uprising shouldn't worry. "Sanctions, Qaddafi's own stupidity bled the force," says Col. Khalil Daraji, in charge of the base's helicopters. "Our planes are in bad condition and the pilots are with the people. Those pilots who ejected prove it. Qaddafi was losing Benghazi and he only had one plane to send."

How the barracks fell

The Benghazi barracks fell in the early morning of Sunday, as foreign mercenaries and Revolutionary Guards withdrew and made their way out of town – many to the airport.

Along the line of their retreat, apartment block walls are pockmarked from what residents say was indiscriminate fire from Qaddafi loyalists.

Anyone caught out in the street was shot, and about five area people were killed, says one resident who asked that his name not be used.

By midday Sunday, Daraji says, about 300 Qaddafi fighters were mustered on the tarmac, waiting for the civilian planes to fly them out to Sirte. He says the largest group of them was disarmed. He believed them to be foreigners – a detail borne out by folders they left behind in haste, which show photos of African men described as being from Nigeria and Chad.

A ring of armed men he took to be Revolutionary Guards surrounded them. Soon they were gone, and mixed units of Libyan soldiers and youths armed with rifles arrived. The airfield had fallen.

For the resistance now, it's "win or die," says Murfali, quoting Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar, who led a 20-year insurgency against Italian forces before being killed in 1931. "We know that we'll all be executed if this revolution fails, and we're not going to let that happen."


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