A few minutes after midnight, tracer bullets and celebratory machine-gun fire were racing into the air from every direction and residents piled into their cars for a massive street party.
In between, the United Nations Security Council voted by 10-0 to not only impose a no-fly zone over eastern Libya but to allow for “all necessary measures” short of an occupation to protect the country’s civilians from Col. Muammar Qaddafi, the dictator who’s ruled Libya for nearly 42 years.
It had been a grim week for a revolution that began as a peaceful uprising against a despot on Feb. 17, with this city and many others wrested from Mr. Qaddafi’s grasp by young people armed with little more than stones and a fierce will for change.
But Qaddafi, describing his people as rats, cockroaches and terrorists, fought back fiercely. First he flattened large portions of the cities that defied him in Libya's west. Then he turned his sights on the "liberated" east by overwhelming the rag-tag rebels with the same brutal tactics.
As he encircled Ajdabiya in recent days -- the next major town west of here -- directing tank fire and rockets on civilian homes and militia positions alike, the certainty in Benghazi that they would prevail began to be replaced by doubt and fear.
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An early insistence that Libyans would finish their revolution without foreign intervention, much as neighboring Egypt and Tunisia had, changed into a desire for a internationally enforced no-fly zone. And in recent days, more and more of the uprising’s supporters have said they’d be happy for foreign air power to be directed on Qaddafi’s forces on the ground.
That’s what they got today, though when foreign action could start and whether Qaddafi will test international remain unclear.
“Hit his tanks, hit his planes, hit him in Bab al-Aziziya,” says Ibrahim Abu Bakar, a young militiaman, referring to the area of Tripoli where Mr. Qaddafi makes his home. “He’s shown he’ll kill as many of his people as he can to stay in power.”
Illustrating the shift was the wild celebration at a Benghazi intersection just off the harbor tonight, where a few French flags (France has been the loudest and most insistent outside power in calling for action) were mixed with hundreds of Libyan ones.
Music blared, young men danced, and volley after volley of heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft fire was released skyward, tracer bullets mixing in with the fireworks erupting over downtown. Overlooking the intersection is a billboard put up in late February that reads: “No to foreign intervention. The Libyan people will do this on their own.”
This morning, Benghazi was a city filled with residents preparing themselves for death, worried about Muammar Qaddafi’s forces 90 miles away and spooked by airstrikes today and yesterday that did severe damage to the city’s airport.
Tonight, there was only conviction that they will succeed, a collective exhalation of relief that the US, France and others had essentially said to Qaddafi “you will go no further.”