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Tobruk residents take to the streets Thursday to celebrate a decision by the United Nations Security Council to OK a no-fly zone over Libya.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

A rebel fighter fires off celebratory shots into the air.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Tobruk residents cheer a decision the U.N. decision to authorize strikes against Kadafi forces, but it wasn't clear when help for the rebels might come.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

The roads were jammed as people converged on the city center to celebrate the U.N. Security Council vote.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Tobruk residents wave their flag in the city center.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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By Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times

I was watching the news in my hotel room, but my mind was on the trip out of Libya tomorrow. Times reporters Jeffrey Fleishman, David Zucchino and I had made the long trek from Benghazi to Tobruk on our way to Egypt.

In the wake of news that four New York Times journalists were missing in action, we got orders to leave the country immediately.

But on television, it was announced that the United Nations Security Council voted to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and take actions to guarantee the Libyan civilian population protection from attack by forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi.

Within minutes, a cacophony of gunfire echoed outside as residents of Tobruk celebrated a development that breathed new life into their beleaguered rebellion.

I ran across the hall and knocked frantically on the door of my driver Ali. He appeared disheveled and had been fast asleep. He asked if something bad was happening. “No,” I said. “I think this is good news for your people.”

I urged him to get dressed and take me to the main square in Tobruk, where we found thousands of people celebrating in the streets. The roads were jammed as people converged on the city center to dance, chant and, of course, fire their assault rifles into the air. Fireworks and tracer rounds lit the night sky. At the same time, similar celebrations were taking place in the towns and villages across rebel-held territory.

Earlier in the day, the situation looked dire and the spirits of the people of Free Libya badly sagged. Kadafi forces had taken Ajdabiya and prepared to march on the rebel capital of Benghazi, some 100 miles to the east. But the U.N. action has at the very least leveled the playing field — and tonight, the people of Eastern Libya partied like it was New Year’s Eve.

For two weeks now, the rebel army has absorbed one humiliating defeat after another trying to fend off better armed government forces, which have pushed them back town by town until their backs were against the wall. The UN action essentially prevents Kadafi from using his aircraft and heavy artillery against the outmatched rebels.

“God is great!” the people screamed. “Libya is free! Kadafi get out!”

It’s been a weird day in a weird war. Against overwhelming odds the rebels have managed to pull some semblance of victory from the iron jaws of defeat.

We may be heading back to Benghazi.

To see more photos by Sinco and fellow Times photographer Rick Loomis click here.

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