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Along a Libya highway, smoldering tanks draw crowds

Thousands of onlookers, cars packed with snacks and children, drive into the desert south of Benghazi to view the wreckage of Kadafi's forces.

March 21, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • A Libyan rebel celebrates atop a tank belonging to Moammar Kadafi's forces in the eastern village of Zuwaytinah. To the west, in Ajdabiya, Kadafi loyalists halted their retreat to battle opposition fighters.
A Libyan rebel celebrates atop a tank belonging to Moammar Kadafi's… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Qaminis, Libya — Ahmed Mogarby lifted his 4-year-old son, Muhammed, so that the boy might touch a charred tank cannon and remember the day that Moammar Kadafi sent tanks to crush his city — but instead was thwarted by foreign air power.

"This is where the criminal Kadafi was stopped," Mogarby told the boy, who stared in wonder at his tiny fingertips, left black by the burned metal.

Father and son stood in the flat desert south of Benghazi on Monday amid the smoking wreckage of government tanks and armored troop carriers. U.S. French and British forces enforcing a U.N. Security Council resolution bombarded Kadafi's armored columns as they fled after assaulting Benghazi, leaving an 80-mile trail of scorched armor.

Even as fighting raged a few dozen miles down the highway, thousands of residents of rebel-controlled eastern Libya drove down the road to gawk at mangled armor and crushed weapons. It was a festive family occasion.

Fathers brought their sons. Women in head scarves peered out from sedans packed with snacks and curious sightseers. Young men posed for photographs, their chests puffed out. People sang songs of defiance and waved the red, black and green rebel flag. Someone joked that kebab and tea concessions would be setting up soon.

Hundreds of cars were parked haphazardly on the highway, blocking traffic. Six ambulances and two fire trucks racing south to the front near the crossroads city of Ajdabiya had to slow down to negotiate the gridlock.

Rebel fighters in jeans and parkas climbed atop wrecked tanks and fired bursts from assault rifles. Boys stripped burned pickup trucks for parts. Middle-aged men shot home videos and scavenged for blackened souvenirs.

"Honestly, in maybe six more hours we would have all been killed and Benghazi would have been destroyed if these warplanes had not arrived," said Abdel Salim, an electrical engineer holding the hands of his two sons, ages 12 and 7.

"Oh, we love America and France," Salim said in accented English as onlookers nodded. "The devil Kadafi is gone from Benghazi, and the entire east is happy. Now we want to finish Kadafi for good."

Salim said he brought his sons to see the smoldering government armada "so they will always remember how close we came to death from this monster Kadafi."

Many gas stations were closed, and lines of waiting cars snaked over the highway at stations that had not yet run dry. But still people drove down from the city, blasting the pulsing new rebel anthem, "Free Libya," from car radios and flashing the victory sign.

It was a stark contrast to Benghazi itself. Most shops were shuttered and traffic was light. The usual throngs of flag-waving, horn-honking rebel supporters were missing. Only a few dozen demonstrators showed up, firing guns and shouting, "Misurata!" and "Zawiya!" — the names of two rebellious western towns under siege by Kadafi's troops.

South of Benghazi, Musa Farraj, a well-dressed business consultant, stood with his shoes covered with sand as he marveled at the debris.

"Hah!" he said, waving a hand at the crumpled tanks, some of them upside down. "These are the gifts Kadafi brought for Benghazi. Look at them now."

The trucks and troop carriers seemed sad and impotent, their crews dead or disappeared. The tanks were especially forlorn. Some of their turrets were still facing north, ready to punish Benghazi. Others faced south, in arrested retreat.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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