Before the UN hits back, a city burns

Anger rises in 'Free Libya' capital as the West fails to stop Gaddafi killing civilians in dawn attack
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The Independent Online

Some of the bodies lay on floors covered in blood, others were on makeshift stretchers, shrouded in torn sheets. Their families wept, hugging each other. Outside, a steady stream of ambulances and cars continued to arrive, ferrying in more dead and injured.

This was Benghazi, 36 hours into the United Nations' resolution pledging to protect civilians. And a day after Barack Obama had stipulated that Muammar Gaddafi's declaration of a ceasefire was not enough, that it must be followed by his troops pulling out of the territories they have occupied in what were opposition-controlled areas. But instead of withdrawing, the regime's forces launched an attack on Benghazi, the capital of "Free Libya", just after dawn. Tanks burst through the western gate of the city after a prolonged artillery barrage as warplanes came in overhead. The one remaining jet of the rebel air force, sent up in the absence of any help from abroad, was shot down.

Casualties on the ground mounted hour after hour. Most of them were civilian, some of them children, the elderly and women. From the West there was inaction, with no sign of promised air strikes to stop this open breach by Gaddafi of his pledge to stop his military offensive. The revolutionary forces, close to defeat and despair after being forced into a series of retreats, had been buoyed by recent diplomatic developments. They had, said the rebel leadership, thought that the international community's assurances of stopping Gaddafi's aggression would have come sooner.

The prevailing mood in Benghazi yesterday – until the French jets came roaring overhead late in the day – was a sense of betrayal. Residents had been celebrating their deliverance from imminent occupation by the regime, and the accompanying inevitable retribution, ever since the United Nations voted to impose a "no-fly zone" on Thursday evening. Their fragile confidence had been bolstered by the tough language coming from Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron.

The arrival of UN-sanctioned warplanes later in the day, following the meeting in Paris, did not, in some quarters, do much to sooth people's anger. "What about the ones who were killed, slaughtered, today?" Shouted Khalid Abdullah Husseini outside Jalla hospital. "They were dying while they just talked, talked. That is all they have been doing for days. The foreign leaders bear responsibility for this." It was premature, if understandable.

The corpses inside were of those caught in the opening salvos by the regime's forces. "But the foreign powers must bear some of the guilt for this," said Ahmed Ibrahimi, one of the doctors, in a quiet voice. "It was cruel to make us think that we were safe. We had even scaled down the numbers of staff on duty because we thought the worst of it was now over. Most of these here were not even fighters, they were just ordinary civilians. We thought the UN was supposed to protect them."

Thirty-one dead and around 53 injured were brought to Jalla with others, few in numbers, said Dr Ibrahimi, taken to other hospitals. Abdisalim al-Megrahi, a 36-year-old carpenter, was among the dead, with chest injuries from what appeared to be a heavy-calibre weapon. He had arrived in Benghazi with his wife, Fatima, and two young children, Ayub and Nadia, four days ago to escape the violence in Ajdabia, which had passed under regime control.

His brother Naji al-Megrahi, who had arrived to collect his remains, said: "Their neighbours' houses were bombed, so we told them to come to Benghazi as soon as possible, they would be safe here. He was planning to go back home in the next few days because we thought the Gaddafi men would have to leave Ajdabia. Now they are here, and I have to bury my brother."

Ali Kheqli, a 23-year-old student, was injured in the same attack at Benghazi Gate. He dragged himself, with shrapnel in his right leg, off the road and into a nearby farmhouse. "The Gaddafi men then came down the road and started searching all the buildings," he recalled. "The owner, he was Egyptian, said that if they found me they would see I was injured and accuse me of being Shabaab and kill me. He hid me in a room in the yard and I stayed there until the Gaddafi men had driven off."

Most of the fighting had been concentrated in the Gar-Yunis and al-Karsh areas in the western approaches to the city. Rebel fighters, the Shabaab, had suffered in the past two weeks for having little answer to the long-distance pounding from the regime's artillery and air strikes. Yesterday, however, after initially being caught by surprise, they took advantage of being able to engage in combat at closer quarters.

The rebels used the alleyways and side roads to ambush the regime troops, forcing them back, capturing three tanks and a number of artillery pieces. By late afternoon, with the much-heralded air strikes by French and British jets still non-existent, they had pushed Gaddafi's troops back beyond the city gates. One of the tanks – an elderly Russian T57 – was cut off and abandoned by its crew at a roundabout.

Saqar Mahmood Madhi was at his home when two of the regime soldiers kicked in his front door and burst in. He managed to run out of the back door and scramble over a fence into the next-door garden.

Mr Madhi was able to return later and, showing the bullet holes sprayed around the rooms, he said: "They had tried to destroy the house, for no reason. I had moved my family out last night which was fortunate, otherwise none of us would have got away. They were in a hurry, they put all this together, but did not take them." A few valuables – a TV, two clocks, a food blender and a rug – had been piled up and left. The soldiers had, instead, shed their olive-green fatigues for Mr Madhi's clothes and disappeared.

Reports that Gaddafi's forces had infiltrated Benghazi added to the atmosphere of panic and uncertainty, with the Shabaab cordoning off houses and opening fire at windows. They appeared to be false alarms but rebels claimed that a dozen members of the Lejan El-Tawreah, the regime's militia, had been captured. Abdul Jawad Mansour, a Shabaab commander setting up check points at El-Barqa district, said: "They were in civilian clothes. They would have murdered people and then Gaddafi would have said that al-Qa'ida was responsible. These are the tricks he will like to play."

One young man with a wound to his arm from a sniper's bullet was brought to the Ibn-Sina hospital in Farihat Garbia. The building had been repeatedly hit during the fighting with the room for the ambulance crew destroyed by mortar fire. "What more could we do to show we are not military?" asked Dr Islam Amer, pointing at the hospital sign and a large red crescent flag. "We got fired on for four hours. No one was shooting from here, this was just vicious."

The hospital – turned into an emergency centre yesterday – specialises in gynaecology and paediatrics. Bullets were embedded in the walls of patients' rooms, forcing their evacuation. A member of staff flicked through international news bulletins on a TV set. "They are broadcasting Gaddafi's claims that al-Qa'ida is responsible for what happened in Benghazi. Maybe some people will even believe that. Do people in America and Europe really know what is going on here?"