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Libyan rebels turn an oblivious eye to defeat

In Benghazi, the party rolls merrily on as Moammar Kadafi has the rebels' comrades in retreat down the coast in Ras Lanuf.

March 10, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Rebel fighters put on a brave face even as they retreat from Ras Lanuf.
Rebel fighters put on a brave face even as they retreat from Ras Lanuf. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — Festive demonstrations were still rollicking after nightfall Thursday along the flag-decked corniche, as they have every night in the 22-day-old uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

A fiery speaker was screaming out the usual caustic diatribes about Kadafi from an ear-splitting public address system. Ecstatic young men — and a segregated throng of chanting women — swayed and sang songs of the eastern rebellion.

Few among the thousands of dedicated opponents of Kadafi's 41-year rule seemed aware that forces loyal to the man they call the Butcher and the Madman were outgunning rebel forces at a strategic oil city 225 miles down the coast.

Rebels were in retreat from Ras Lanuf, but Benghazi's three-week celebration rolled merrily on, untroubled by any bad news from the front.

"Ras Lanuf gone? No, no, no! It's another Kadafi lie!" said Majub Fakhary, a stout man of 49 who had brought his young son to the latest celebration.

"It's propaganda; Kadafi is desperate. Everything is fine there," insisted Mustafa Mohammed, an employee of the state-owned Sirte Oil Co. in Port Brega, another key oil installation now in the sights of Kadafi's forces, just 140 miles from Benghazi.

The almost willful obliviousness seemed especially startling, given that sons and brothers of many of the demonstrators were among the rebel fighters who have been fighting in, or, according to witnesses, retreating from, Ras Lanuf.

Only the city's shopkeepers seemed to sense that the opposition might be imperiled. Many closed their shops early and some never opened, some residents said.

Shortly after nightfall, chilling remarks from Kadafi's son Seif Islam flashed across TV sets in locked homes. Speaking from Tripoli, the capital, he said the time had come to unleash the full might of Libya's military against the uprising.

"We are coming," he said.

By that time, Benghazi had grown quiet for the night, and the threat was met with somber reflection by some men still on the streets, punctuated by vows to fight the regime to the death.

Earlier, in the seaside courthouse, where the thump of chanting demonstrators and the pop-pop-pop of celebratory gunfire echoed off office walls scrawled with anti-Kadafi graffiti, opposition leaders seemed unconcerned.

"Ras Lanuf is not lost," said Essam Gheriani, a Benghazi businessman who serves as one of many roving spokesmen for the opposition in the courthouse. "The front line is still there."

Supporters who packed the hallways were still euphoric over news earlier Thursday that France had become the first nation to recognize the opposition transitional council as the sole legitimate representative of Libya's people.

Mustafa Gheriani, Essam's brother, beamed when he heard the news.

"Oh, this is a big thing!" he said. "This breaks the ice."

Mustafa Gheriani is 54, tall, silver-haired and urbane. He has a courtly air and speaks fluent English. He studied industrial engineering at Western Michigan University and lived in the U.S. for 30 years.

He is relentlessly upbeat, despite spending every day and evening in a shabby, barely furnished office stained by a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke. For many international reporters, he is the serene, confident face of the eastern revolution.

While TV images throughout Benghazi showed rebel fighters in gun-mounted pickup trucks speeding away from Ras Lanuf, Gheriani projected unruffled serenity.

"This is a revolution," he said. "Things are very fluid."

Kadafi, he said, is desperate, "and for all practical purposes, he's done."

Even as the opposition council implores the West for a no-fly zone to negate Kadafi's air supremacy, it also warns that it will accept no foreign military troops.

At the same time, Iman Bugaighis, who teaches orthodontics at the local university and is a national council spokesman, predicted that France's recognition will pave the way for diplomatic and military triumphs over Kadafi. It will trigger recognition from other European nations, she said, and more humanitarian and military assistance.

Bugaighis often speaks in long soliloquies, in lightly accented English, on the deprivations inflicted on eastern Libya by the Kadafi regime.

She did so on Thursday, only to be interrupted by a journalist inquiring about dire reports from Ras Lanuf.

"I don't know about that," she said, raising her voice over the din of the celebratory gunfire from a rally outside. "But we're staying right here and resisting to our last drop of blood."

Mustafa Gheriani said the city had a six-month supply of food and other rations. More is coming through eastern ports and the open border with Egypt, he said.

The opposition's inexperienced and undisciplined fighters are now getting direction from special-forces cadres and soldiers who have defected from the national army, Gheriani said. Those older fighters, some of them coming out of retirement, will now take the lead in upcoming battles, he said.

They are bringing heavy weapons such as armored personnel carriers and multiple-rocket launchers to help offset the more modern weapons employed by pro-Kadafi forces, he said.

The Gheriani brothers said there was no chance Kadafi's forces would overrun Port Brega, which was seized by rebel forces 10 days ago. And there is no chance government forces will push all the way to Benghazi, they said.

"Really," Essam Gheriani said at nightfall, "there's nothing to worry about."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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