Benghazi, Libya's rebel capital, braces for a fight

Libya's rebels are begging for international help as Qaddafi's forces tighten their siege of Ajdabiya, the last major city on the road to Benghazi.

Nasser Nasser/AP
A Libyan rebel checks vehicles crossing toward Egypt at the Libyan terminal of the Egyptian-Libyan border crossing near the border town of Musaed, Libya, Wednesday, March 16. The Libyan borders observe an active crossing traffic as tension at the eastern side of the country grows with the military confrontations getting closer to the rebels strong hold of Benghazi.

Muammar Qaddafi's regime sought to portray an aura of inevitability about its march into Libya’s rebellious east today as his forces tightened their siege of Ajdabiya and raised fears of an assault on the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi.

The struggle at Ajdabiya – a city of about 100,000 located 90 miles from Benghazi – is finely poised at the moment, and good information from inside the city is hard to come by. But if Qaddafi is willing to use the kind of artillery barrages he has used on western towns that rose up against him or tries to starve the city, he could well prevail.

His next step would probably be to try such tactics on a much grander scale here in Benghazi, where a psychological war is already under way. On state TV, Qaddafi is referring to the city's rebels as Al Qaeda terrorists, rats, and worse. Phone calls from his loyalists in Tripoli tell residents their families will be killed.

Indeed, the stakes are high in the stand-off between the Arab world's longest-serving dictator and the rag-tag militias that have been pleading for a no-fly zone – a move the United Nations Security Council is deliberating today and could implement within a few hours if approved, according to a French diplomatic source.

The Libyan National Council, an interim government formed by the uprising, was divided today. An aide to the council says most of its members favored issuing a statement demanding strong international action against Qaddafi, while a few holdouts argued against calling for foreign intervention beyond a no-fly zone.

“We know what waits for us if Qaddafi is allowed to win,” says Mussa al-Obeidi, a middle-aged insurance salesman standing in front of the Benghazi courthouse, which is covered with the faces of hundreds of people who were killed for their political beliefs by Qaddafi’s regime in the past. “He wants the whole country under his thumb again and nothing he says should be trusted.”

Arab TV network Al Arabiya reported today that Libya’s armed forces are promising a cease-fire on Sunday to give rebels a chance to “surrender,” without providing further details or naming its source. That came a day after Qaddafi’s son and regime mouthpiece, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, said that the rebellion would be crushed within 48 hours.

Benghazi braces for a siege

Qaddafi has Ajdabiya, the last major city on the road to Benghazi, partially encircled. Tripoli-based reporters flown down on a brief junket by the government to the western outskirts of town reported a force of about 1,000 men massing there with tanks, fuel trucks, and stores of ammunition and food. That indicates he’s seeking to choke the town off from the rest of the country.

There were scattered explosions in the town today but rebel leaders said their own militia continues to hold the center of the city, where the phones have been cut and most power turned off. In Misratah last week, the phones were cut before he unleashed plane, rocket, and tank fire on the town, killing dozens.

For now, Qaddafi appears stalled at Ajdabiya and has drawn no closer to Benghazi, but rebels said they shot down a pro-Qaddafi MIG this morning in Benghazi. Bombing today also did substantial damage to the runway at Beinana airfield in Benghazi, a city second only to Tripoli with 1 million residents.

This city is bracing for an expected siege. In many residential neighborhoods, young men with assault rifles have taken to the roofs of family homes and are organizing nightly patrols of their areas.

When the occasional plane was spotted overhead today, cars stopped, with the passengers alternately shouting curses and “God is great” at the sky. In the morning, two Turkish warships designed to monitor and attack planes were a few miles off Benghazi harbor.

'We'll fight to our last drop'

Benghazi and the eastern portion of the country has always been restive, and a source of both Islamist and secular movements against Qaddafi that have been relentlessly crushed during his almost 42 years in power.

Today in town, members of the Warfalla tribe, Libya’s largest, and the Tarhuna, another national tribe, held anti-Qaddafi rallies after state TV reported last night that leaders of both tribes in Benghazi had thrown their support behind Qaddafi.

“Qaddafi is a liar,” was emblazoned on a poster of a few hundred Tarhuna men parading in the capital today and waving Libya’s independence-era flag, which was abolished by Qaddafi in favor of a green one of his own design.

“We want freedom, to be our own people, and he’s trying to divide us and create suspicion,” says Nuri al-Megrahi, marching with a group of men carrying a 60-by-20-foot independence flag down a major thoroughfare.

Nour el-din el-Sharif, a middle-aged man who spent 13 years in Qaddafi’s prisons for supporting a secular opposition group, predicts the city will fight “to our last drop” against Qaddafi. “This is a movement for basic freedom and dignity. We’re waiting for the international community, but either way we’ll fight.”

After initial reservations about military intervention, the US has nudged closer to a harder line on action in recent days, and has hinted at doing more than simply stopping Qaddafi’s fighter jets from bombing rebels.

"We need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include, but perhaps go beyond, a no-fly zone at this point,” said Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN. “The situation on the ground has evolved … a no-fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians."

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