Celebration gives way to cynicism in rebel stronghold

The view from Benghazi

Daniel Howden
Monday 02 May 2011 00:00
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After midnight, the staccato gunfire that lulls Benghazi to sleep suddenly intensified. Big blasts shook the sea front, mobile phones began to ring and cars screeched through the streets. Outside the closed market, two young fighters in skinny jeans leapt from a battered sedan decked in freedom flags and shot wildly into the night sky.

"God is great," they shouted. "Death to Gaddafi, death to his sons." At first there was confusion over who had died. Among those on the streets hugging, some thought it was the London School of Economics' controversial graduate, Saif al-Islam. But news spread quickly over the East's "free network" Libyana that the regime was claiming his younger brother Saif al-Arab had been killed by a Nato air strike, along with three of the colonel's grandchildren.

Fireworks mingled with the tracer fire climbing into the sky and "Benghazi bangers" – firecrackers improvised from artillery shells – rocked the city centre. Whole stockpiles of munitions which were kept to defend the port city from the regime's army just an hour's drive away in the oil town of Brega were being detonated in a joyful outburst.

By the break of dawn yesterday, an air of scepticism had replaced the exuberance of the night before. Saif al-Arab was largely unknown to the residents of Benghazi. He has his own playing card along with Muammar Gaddafi and his other children on the FBI-style wanted poster in the harbour. But the five of hearts which has Saif al-Arab's name mistakenly bears the picture of his brother Saadi.

At Benghazi's courthouse, which has been the centrepiece of the revolution, there were dark mutterings of conspiracies. Mustafa Gheriani, who has already held several roles in Libya's alternative government, the National Council, refused to be taken in. "We don't really believe any of it, Gaddafi is untrustworthy," he said.

Sitting in an office decorated with cartoons mocking Libya's self-appointed "guide" – one of which called Colonel Gaddafi a "murderer" in 15 languages – Mr Gheriani said the alleged death was another propaganda stunt.

"I watched their [state] television and they didn't even interrupt the talk show that was on, they just had a headline saying Saif al-Arab was dead," he said. "The world would be turned upside down if one of his children was really dead. He did this before in 1986 with his dead daughter but nothing was ever proven. We don't think anything has happened to his family."

In the suburbs around Benghazi, where thousands of families who have been displaced by the fighting to the west are sheltering, Ibrahim Boujuful sat surrounded by portraits of his dead sons and nephews. "We are sorry for every Libyan that dies," said the 57-year-old. "If Gaddafi is sad it is good, we have also been sad."

The former immigration official's son, Hamed, died earlier this month in shelling in Ajdabiya at the same age, 29, as Saif al-Arab. Mr Boujuful's younger son, Mohammed, was taken by Gaddafi's troops near Ras Lanuf in March. There has been no news of him since then. "What about the other people who have died?" Mr Boujuful asked. "It was Saif's father who killed thousands of them."

Mr Boujuful offered coffee and dates to Nato leaders to continue the air raids. "There is no surgery without blood," he said. "The more attacks there are, the shorter this war will be. We give thanks to Nato."

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