BENGHAZI - The bombs fell with devilish precision. Two Sunday morning air raids by the international coalition destroyed several dozen of Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks, which were gathered at the southern entrance of Benghazi. Their advance toward the rebel capital was stopped in its tracks. Loyalist survivors took to their heels, retreating hurriedly to the south.
Blackened T-72 heavy tank carcasses, multiple rocket launchers, self-propelled guns and armored vehicles dotted the four-lane highway near the city. Some tanks look as if they have been dismembered by an unknown force, their turrets furiously torn apart and thrown dozens of meters away. Others, abandoned by their crews, are lying about like prehistoric animals wiped out by a cataclysm from above. Smoldering black steel remains are bleeding shiny drops of molten aluminum on the tarmac. From time to time, ammunition explodes with blinding flashes of light. The road is littered with pieces of charred metal and debris from the withdrawal. There is a smell of burned tires and gasoline in the air, the smell of defeat.
Dozens of charred or abandoned vehicles are scattered along a 50 kilometer-long trail south of Benghazi. Near the village of Lajhar, a tank burning on the trailer of a tank carrier suddenly explodes into a big ball of orange flames and black smoke.
Three days ago, Gaddafi’s soldiers were about to launch the final assault on the rebel capital. They were obviously taken aback by the allied war planes and their bombs: cooking utensils are scattered everywhere, skinned sheep carcasses lie between vehicles, suggesting loyalists were preparing to have breakfast before launching their attack. The bodies of dozens of these unfortunate soldiers are spread around their vehicles. Some of the corpses are charred, twisted and blackened. Others have been shredded beyond recognition. Sifting through the rubble, one stumbles on scattered body parts: a leg in a shoe here, a severed arm there.
"The French planes struck twice, the first time at around 6:30 a.m., the second time at around 10:30 a.m.," says Colonel Souleymane Al Qaddiqui, a Libyan army officer turned rebel. "Gaddafi’s soldiers dispersed, some of them fleeing on foot, others inside civilian vehicles. They took the road to Ajdabiya. Now we’ll be able to move forward."
Nobody was able to see the war planes, which were flying at very high altitudes, or the cruise missiles, which reached their targets with impressive precision. Yet rebels are convinced the planes were French, and they are more than willing to express their gratitude to France for its support at a time when all seemed lost. "Sarkozy, bravo!” rebel fighters shout from their pickups. Curious civilians are gathering around the destroyed vehicles. Some have no qualms about plundering the vans left behind by Gaddafi’s soldiers.
The allied air assault came just in time. Gaddafi's forces were getting closer to their target with every passing hour. Over the previous two weeks they had advanced hundreds of kilometers along the Gulf of Sidra. Along the way they seized control of the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Brega. Last week they took the strategic town of Ajdamiya, which fell in a few hours. The dictator’s army then entered the suburbs of Benghazi. Over the weekend they were ready to launch the final assault against the almost defenceless rebel city, to drown the Libyan revolution in blood.
The final assault began on Saturday, when Katyusha rockets began targeting several parts of the city. Dozens of people were killed or injured and inhabitants started pouring towards the cities of northern Cyrenaica, the region of east Libya. The approval by the UN of a Libyan no-fly zone galvanized rebel fighters and allowed them to reorganize. In Tabalinu Hayet, a southern Benghazi suburb, they managed to stop Gaddafi’s forces near the city’s highway interchanges, and under the eucalyptus trees lining the road near Gamfuda. On Saturday night, the streets of Benghazi were cut off by hurriedly erected barricades.
It is impossible to say, however, how long rebel Benghazi would have been able to resist the superior firepower of the forces loyal to the dictator. "We had managed to stop them, but we then had to retreat. Until the planes arrived, that is," says Lajhar, a fighter who voluntarily joined the revolutionary militia fighting to defend Benghazi.
“They shoot at anyone in front of them”
The allied air strikes turned the tables in just a matter of hours. After a disorderly withdrawal, Gaddafi's troops were heading Sunday toward southern Libya. Late in the afternoon, they were seen by revolutionaries near the villages of al-Magroun and Sultan, halfway between Benghazi and Ajdamiya. "They shoot at anything in front of them," rebel fighters say. By dusk, residents of Ajdamiya (situated some 160 kilometers south of Benghazi) were saying that the loyalists had left the city and were heading towards western Libya and towards Gaddafi’s home region of Sirte, where the embattled ruler still counts on a large number of supporters.
The movement across the coastal road has once again resumed, this time in the opposite direction, towards Western Libya and the Gulf of Sidra. Revolutionary forces have already started to activate again, even if they still lack real organization. They are preparing to resume their advance southward. Loyalist forces are now said to be rapidly retreating. But in a landscape hopelessly flat and barren, Gaddafi’s armored vehicles are easy targets for the coalition’s cruise missiles. The outcome still remains uncertain, a struggle based more on will than on military power, but the allied international intervention may have changed the course of the Libyan revolution.
Read the original article in French.
Photo credit - (USAF)