U.S., British and French forces attacked Libyan air defenses and armor on Sunday on the heels of a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding Libyan forces pull back from rebel-held areas.
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[Updated March 21]
By Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times
Rewind. We’re back in Benghazi after a grueling 1,000-mile, 18-hour trip from Cairo.
We hit the ground running and on Monday took a ride west toward Ajdabiya and saw a lot of burned, battered and abandoned military vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi littering the desert landscape.
The stench of smoke and death hung in the air as scores of Benghazi residents toured the wreckage of an enemy in retreat, posing for pictures for friends amid the rubble and scouring the grounds for battlefield souvenirs. The scene had the feel of a county fair — and only lacked vendors hawking food and drink by the road.
For some 75 miles west from the capital of the Libyan rebellion, tanks, trucks, buses, jeeps and cars were strewn along the highway, most charred or blown to bits, and some just left behind.
Starting Saturday, allied Western powers carried out air missions to impose a U.N.-sponsored no-fly zone over Libya with deadly efficiency. And unlike Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s fighter jockeys, flyboys from France, Britain and the United States are capable of hitting targets. The proof was plain to see.
Without air support, rebel forces would have lost Benghazi by now. Kadafi forces advanced, while encountering little resistance over the last three weeks, from Bin Jawwad to Ras Lanuf to Port Brega to Ajdabiya. On Saturday, they stormed the gates of Benghazi. In that same period, rebel forces proved to be really good at waving flags, driving their gun trucks up and down the highway, firing their weapons aimlessly into the air and mouthing a lot of bravado while retreating without putting up much of a fight.
But that’s not the way the rebel-led provisional government sees it. On the car radio, a would-be Benghazi Rose thanked the people of Free Libya for their strength and courage in the face of adversity. No thanks to anybody else — and no mention of the air cover by Western powers.
During a news conference at the Libyan opposition’s media center, a spokesman hailed rebel fighters for beating back the enemy. According to him, a rebel warplane scrambled as Benghazi came under attack and its pilots single-handedly destroyed dozens of Kadafi’s tanks and armored vehicles before being shot of out the sky by friendly fire. That’s the official story and they’re sticking to it.
Thankfully, the people on the street are more in touch with reality. Rebels we met on the road to Ajdabiya expressed deep gratitude for the allied air cover. In Benghazi’s eerily empty main square, a man with a bullhorn chanted in Arabic: “Thank you America, Britain and France.” And late this afternoon, I saw a crowd of people holding aloft a large French flag as they marched around the streets of Benghazi.
At a local hospital, the mood wasn’t so upbeat as I photographed several men weeping inconsolably over the death of loved ones. Over the weekend, hundreds of people — civilians and rebel fighters alike — have been wounded and killed.
The fighting rages on. Along the road to Tripoli, the air reeks of things burning and dead.