Rebels say Gaddafi troops enter Benghazi

BENGHAZI, Libya Sat Mar 19, 2011 7:28am EDT

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels said forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi stormed Benghazi on Saturday and they appealed to the West to launch military strikes to halt the advance of the Libyan leader's troops on their eastern bastion.

Gaddafi's tanks, artillery and warplanes, one of which was shot down, bombarded the city, rebels said, a day after Libya's foreign minister announced a ceasefire following a U.N. resolution that authorized Western military intervention.

The Libyan government denied it was attacking Benghazi, said it was respecting the ceasefire and accused rebels of raiding villages and towns to draw in the West.

"They have entered Benghazi from the west. Where are the Western powers? They said they could strike within hours," Khalid al-Sayeh, a rebel military spokesman, told Reuters.

A Reuters witness saw one blast near the rebel national council building that was barricaded by concrete blocks.

Six 4x4 pick-ups mounted with machine guns were moved to the Benghazi seafront. But the relatively light arms of rebel forces have proved a poor match for Gaddafi's heavy firepower.

The U.N. resolution authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and the use of "all necessary measures" -- code for military action -- to protect civilians. A government source in France, which has led calls for intervention, said the world must act fast.

Standing next to his Benghazi home, Hassan Marouf, 58, said: "Europe and America have sold us out. We have been hearing bombing all night, and they have been doing nothing. Why?"

"We have no one to help us but God. Us men are not afraid to die, but I have women and children inside and they are crying and in tears. help us," he said.

'GOD WILL HELP US'

Hours after Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa announced the ceasefire, Gaddafi said there was "no justification" for the U.N. resolution which he described as "blatant colonialism."

Gaddafi's forces in the past two weeks reversed a rebel advance along the Mediterranean coast with a land, sea and air offensive to retake towns, some with key oil facilities, before moving to Benghazi.

"They (the West) promised us they would come and start fighting Gaddafi. They are just promises," said 60-year-old oil worker Sherif Bashir, who was unarmed and in central Benghazi as the bombardment in and around the city took place.

"We will do anything, we will fight with stones, God will help us," he said when asked what he could do without a gun.

Witnesses saw few signs of substantial defenses outside Benghazi prior to Saturday's offensive and few rebels carried arms even near the rebel council building, where loudspeakers blared out a Muslim prayer and the words: "God is greatest."

Inside the city, residents set up make-shift barricades with furniture, benches, road signs and even a barbecue in one case at intervals along main streets. Each barricade was manned by half a dozen rebels, but only about half of those were armed.

"The international community is late in intervening to save civilians from Gaddafi's forces," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the Benghazi-based rebel National Libyan Council, told Al Jazeera television, adding: "We appeal to the international community, to the all the free world, to stop this tyranny from exterminating civilians."

Saturday's bombardment began early in the morning. Thuds resounded and warplanes roared over the city. A Reuters correspondent saw one plane shot out of the sky.

BLACK SMOKE

"I saw the plane circle around, come out of the clouds, head toward an apparent target, and then it was hit and went straight down in flames and a huge billow of black smoke went up," said correspondent Angus MacSwan.

Several areas of the city were struck, including the area near the airport several kilometres (miles) to the east of the center.

"Fighter jets bombed the road to the airport and there's been an air strike on the Abu Hadi district on the outskirts," Mohammed Dwo, a hospital worker and a rebel supporter, said.

There were also reports of skirmishes early in the morning before rebels reported a concerted assault.

"They have just entered Benghazi and they are flanking us with tanks, missiles and mortars," Fathi Abidi, a rebel supporter who works on logistics, said at the western entrance to the city where about three quarters of million people live.

He pointed to a black smoke plume on the city's boundaries.

At one spot in the city, rebels said they fought with people they described as mercenaries for Gaddafi, a common charge. They said the men in civilian clothes infiltrated the city in a car in which rebels said they found a crate of hand grenades.

A Reuters correspondent was shown blood-soaked identity papers that rebels said proved the men were African.

"We were sitting here and we received gunfire from this vehicle then we opened fire and after that it crashed," rebel fighter Meri Dersi said.

Jamal bin Nour, a member of a neighborhood watch group, said he had been told government forces were landing by boat, a tactic rebels said was used by Gaddafi's forces to retake much smaller coastal towns in the past two weeks.

It was impossible to confirm the information because of the welter of rumors in the city and lack of communications.

(Additional reporting by Angus MacSwan; Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo)

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