Attempts to crush rebels fail as strikes halt Gaddafi's army
Published 21/03/2011 | 05:00
THE remains of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's attempt to smash the rebels' resistance lay smouldering in a scrub field outside Benghazi.
The carcasses of at least 10 tanks lay blackened and twisted as the sun rose yesterday morning. An armoured gun turret had been thrown 30 yards through the air by the impact of air strikes delivered at dusk by French warplanes. It had gouged a deep wound in the soft soil and lay broken and useless.
Transporters -- one still carrying a tank -- and armoured personnel carriers were burning all around, sending up black plumes of acrid smoke. Dozens of pickups had been destroyed.
And in the distance, a vehicle erupted in a blinding, white fireball, sending up the fizz and pop of exploding ammunition.
The smoking hardware stretched far into the distance. It was an awesome and impressive sight. A day earlier, the same tanks had bulldozered their way into the city as thousands of refugees fled before the devastating assault. The fall of Benghazi seemed inevitable.
Now, rebel leaders hope the arrival of air strikes will herald a new phase in their uprising, sending mutiny through the ranks of Col Gaddafi's demoralised army and prompting a fresh wave of popular protests, even in his strongholds of Tripoli and Sirte.
"They will run away now," said one rebel fighter, who had come to celebrate the carnage. "They cannot fight this. We thank the French and their planes."
Closer to Benghazi, a one-storey home had been used as an impromptu government morgue and some of the bodies had borne the signs of execution, said witnesses.
"There were two with single gunshots to the head, like they were executed. Others had shrapnel wounds," said a French photographer who had seen the bodies piled one atop the other on Saturday night.
He pointed to where blood had soaked into the ground before a wall which was riddled with bullet marks, as if the men had been lined up in front of a firing squad.
The rebels are convinced that Col Gaddafi is making his final stand and has sent young, demoralised soldiers to fight while handcuffed to tanks or in planes without parachutes.
"We found 13 men wearing the military uniform of Gaddafi," Khaled al-Sayeh, a spokesman for the rebels, said. "Some were handcuffed and we believe they were executed possibly for defying orders."
All Saturday the fighters had waited for the air strikes. With a growing sense of anger and frustration they wondered whether the UN resolution -- passed on Thursday night -- had any teeth. All morning Col Gaddafi's forces sent a deadly barrage of artillery into the city, edging closer and closer to the centre.
By 10am the tanks were inside the streets, drawing fire from rebel armoured vehicles as they raced to cut off the advance.
Trees along the road were shredded, their leaves and branches scythed down by sharp-edged shrapnel. Street lights were bent in two by the force of explosions.
Hundreds of men ran to the front line without weapons to see if they could help defend the city.
"We could see them right up close. There were just columns and columns of men walking behind the tanks," said Tamer Backr (33). "We hid behind the wall until we could run back."
By yesterday morning it was all over, hastened by the warplanes that witnesses said had plunged out of dark cloud as the sun dropped and returned in the early morning.
The wreckage of burnt-out vehicles -- pickups, civilian cars and three buses used to ferry members of Libya's special forces Khamis brigade to the fighting -- littered the south-western approach to Benghazi.
Jubilant rebels fired their rifles in the air as they paraded a captured Gaddafi tank through the streets on the back of a transporter. Cars tooted their horns in salute.
The immediate threat to Benghazi was gone, with Col Gaddafi's forces reportedly pushed back 40 miles from the city by air strikes.
Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebels' governing council, said the revolution had started with peaceful protests and he hoped they could now return to a peaceful struggle with more defections and demonstrations undermining Col Gaddafi's hold on power.
"The sight of warplanes in the air will have a huge psychological effect on his own people," he said.
The past week has shown that rebels cannot advance on the capital Tripoli from their eastern strongholds without help. They will need towns and cities in the path to switch allegiance from government to rebel and for more military units to defect to the revolutionary cause. (© Daily Telegraph, London)