Road To Benghazi Like Tourist Site For Some Libyans

March 22, 2011

Eric Westervelt

Eric Westervelt
Ahmed Jarbou, 45, a businessman from Benghazi and his daughter, Jude, 2, examine remnants of destroyed mobile artillery from forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Eric Westervelt
Locals on the road between Benghazi and Ajdabiya check out the carnage from recent coalition air strikes against forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

Coalition airstrikes have pushed forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi back to the outskirts of Ajdabiya in the East — just south of the rebel capital, Benghazi.

But, so far, the anti-Gadhafi rebels have been unable to do much to capitalize on the opportunity, and remain largely pinned down on the roadway south of Benghazi.

A U.S. fighter jet crashed Monday night due to what the Pentagon says was mechanical failure. Both of the pilots were rescued and one of them was treated by rebel supporters before being taken out of the country.

The main roadway southwest out of Benghazi toward the front is littered with the ruins of some of Gadhafi's heavy armor — destroyed rocket launchers, tanks and transport buses lie scattered and smoldering in the desert next to the road. In one spot, someone has hung tattered uniform tops from Gadhafi's soldiers from metal fence posts, like green scarecrows. There's still a smell of burning metal and rubber.

There's an armored personal carrier smoking and charred in the field next to two blown-off turrets of a Russian made artillery. Kids play on them, as locals take photos. The carnage and destruction from the allied air strikes has become a kind of tourist site along the road between Benghazi and Ajdabiya.

"Look at what Gadhafi is doing with our country's wealth," says Mohammed Khalifa, 68. "He's buying weapons to attack own people! He has no mercy!"

Ahmed Jarbou, 45, a businessman from Benghazi, drove out with his wife and young daughter to see the destruction first hand. He stands next to a massive artillery piece that this past weekend had rained terror down on Benghazi.

Jarbou cradles a sawed-off shotgun in one arm — and his two-year-old daughter Jude in the other.

"Two days she's crying after the booms at home," he says of Jude. "[Gadhafi] is crazy. How any people can [he] kill ... by this one, by this machine? Kids and women, and men — and he's looking for al-Qaida? No, these are Benghazi people."

Nearby rebel fighter Mohammed El Gizeery is showing his 60-year-old mother Hahdiya around the destruction. He's driven her here in his beat up old Opel.

We saw Gahdafi's attacks and the air strikes, she says, and we were not afraid — God protected us. We thank Europe and America for their help and support and, God willing, we'll now be victorious, she says.

But a half-hour up the desert road from this spot, rebel fighters near the front line are not as confident. They've been unable, so far, to make much progress at all. They keep getting pushed back when they try to fight forward into Ajdabiya.

The entrance to the city is still guarded by Gadhafi's tanks and heavy artillery. Fighter Fathi Belas, 36, left his elementary school teaching job in Shahat, a town some 200 miles to the east, to take to the fight.

We still need everything, Belas says. Heavy weapons, night vision goggles. We have no proper communication network, he says.

Nearby, 22-year-old fighter Sanad el Hassi is resting in his pick up truck, with his AK-47 by his side.

We have a huge difference in forces, Hassi says. He has more heavy weapons and ammunition than we do; he still has tanks, grad rockets, and artillery, he says.

"We're worried about our brothers in Misrata," Hassi says of rebels under siege in that city far to the west. Witnesses there say more than 40 civilians have been killed in Misrata in the last two days.

Rebel officials say some of Gadhafi's troops using heavy armor tried again to push into Benghazi Monday night — this time from the east. They were stopped by allied airstrikes, they say. It's very possible that one of the planes halting that attack was the U.S. F15-Eagle fighter that crashed in the Libyan desert Monday night. Both pilots, the military says, ejected from that plane and are now safe.

Egyptian doctors who treated one of the pilots said this man was taken to a hotel in Benghazi around 2 a.m. Tuesday morning by rebel sympathizers. Dr. Dina Omar says she was surfing the Web late at her hotel when she got the word that a U.S. pilot needed attention. She says he wouldn't give his name or any information — he wouldn't talk much at all at first.

But slowly, she says, he became less anxious after realizing he really was in supportive hands.

"After two hours he started to speak and smile, he even said I have to trust you because if you're with Gadhafi or other side you're good actor for me," she says. "I guess he felt comfortable with us."

The pilot, she says, suffered only minor bruises. Omar says she went to sleep around 5 a.m. — and the pilot left with the help from members of the rebel's Provisional National Council.

It's not clear how he was whisked out of Libya. It appears the other pilot was rescued, and Britain's Channel 4 News reports that six villagers were shot during the rescue operation — none fatally — and one boy may need to have a leg amputated. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.