BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Libya’s rebel-held city of Benghazi has filled a political void with a coalition which is cleaning up, providing food, building defenses, reassuring foreign oil firms and telling Tripoli it believes in one nation.
After noon prayers, about 6,000 Benghazi residents voiced solidarity with Tripoli protesters and ruled out splitting the country, saying they wanted Libya united.
“God make our brothers in Tripoli victorious,” they chanted as reports emerged that at least five people were killed in the capital when security forces opened fire on protesters.
The scenes in the eastern city could not be more different than those in Tripoli now.
In what could become a model for other cities and towns in Libya facing chaos, professionals in Libya’s ancient second city are trying to get residents’ lives back to normal after forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fled.
“The oil deals (with foreign firms) that are legal and to the benefit of the Libyan people we will keep,” said Jammal bin Nour, a judge and member of the interim February 17 coalition, which says it is temporarily governing Libya’s second city.
If the deals were unfair, Nour said the interim coalition would reserve the right to re-negotiate them.
Weapons used in bloody clashes with pro-Gaddafi forces were collected and African mercenaries the coalition says the Libyan leader used to fire on protesters were in jail awaiting trial. The city paid a high price for the revolt with up to 250 dead.
The airport was closed because residents feared more mercenaries could be flown in and defenses were being readied in case of some kind of counter-attack.
Coalition member Omar Mohammed said the army was behind the administration of Benghazi in restoring law and order.
“I have friends in the army, senior officers, who know their job is to defend the people from Gaddafi in all of this part of Libya,” he told Reuters.
“They have been collecting a lot of weapons from the civilians because it is so dangerous. Some people think they need them to protect themselves. But this idea is not accepted. We are collecting the arms.”
The Libyan army and police in the eastern city of Adjabiya said on al-Jazeera television on Friday they had left their barracks and joined the opposition.
Many youths in Benghazi wanted to march to Tripoli to show to Gaddafi that the east was behind the aspirations of anti-Gaddafi factions in the west.
“There are lots of people here in Benghazi who want to go and help those in Tripoli. This is one country,” said Mohammed, a 52-year-old engineer, who belongs to the coalition that groups professionals such as judges and doctors.
“Gaddafi tries to say the eastern part of Libya is tribal and always in revolt. It’s not like that. This is one country and one people that will not be divided,” Mohammed told Reuters.
Nour reinforced this message.
“I am sure after we succeed and get the victory we dream of, all people in Tripoli will support the same targets. They fight for the unity of the state. That is the most important principle for us,” he said, adding: “We are waiting to connect with them and make agreement to build our country.”
Benghazi, often seen as a rival to the capital, said Friday would be a day for solidarity with Tripoli.
“Our hearts are with you heroes of Tripoli” and “We will not forget you,” said banners outside the court house that is the coalition nerve-center. Outside strung from lamp-posts were effigies of Gaddafi and one of his sons.
The crowd was jubilant and cars honked their horns with passengers flashing V-for-victory in celebration.
Nour spoke of the coalition’s aspirations and hopes.
“Our wealth must be the people’s wealth, we want better schools, hospitals, to improve standards of living. Education is the power of the people. The previous system — we can call it that now — he controlled everything for personal purposes.”
Nour also referred to the importance of honoring oil deals.
“If the deals are good, we will support them, if not we have the right to negotiate and translate the will of the people in the street, who want democracy and are asking ‘where is our money?’ We have heard Gaddafi has 130 billion dollars just in America. Why do those in America and England keep silent?”
A special anti-corruption unit would be set up to go after illegal business deals, he said.
Many of Libya’s key oil producing areas and terminals are located in the east of the OPEC member state, large parts of which are under the control of rebels seeking to oust Gaddafi who has lost swathes of his country to the revolt.
Production at Libya’s eastern al-Amal oil field, one of the OPEC producer’s four largest, has not been disrupted by the bloody uprising, an official at the field told Reuters.
“There is no destruction of oil wells, they are ours. No way. If any destruction of the oil facilities happens, it will be Gaddafi doing it,” Mohammed said.
“Nearly all the oilfields in Libya east of Ras Lanuf are now controlled by the people and the government has no control in this area,” said Abdessalam Najib, a petroleum engineer at the Libyan company Agico and member of the February 17 coalition.
“The people at the fields and those transporting it (oil) to terminals are still working, but (work has been) shut down by, let us say, 75 percent. I work in oilfields and I was told this by someone at a very big oil company in Brega.” Marsa El Brega is an oil port in eastern Libya, south of Benghazi.
Many stores in Benghazi were shuttered due to recent violence, but pharmacies, groceries and other stores that were open appeared to be well-stocked. At least one bank was open.
In the street, some youths with the words “organizing committee” emblazoned on their tops directed traffic.
One committee communicates with the army, one talks to the police, and one with the media, for instance. Others are in charge of providing food and ensuring security.
After a week of violence in which it threw off government control, this city of about 700,000 is being run by these committees of citizens as the dust of rebellion settles. In the east of Libya, many soldiers have withdrawn from active service.
Mohammed spoke of a sense of solidarity in Benghazi. Three days ago an order came to cut the power in the city but staff at power stations refused.
“There does seem to be a collection of intellectuals in Benghazi congregating around the courthouse, but that is not the same as the sort of leadership you would need for a military campaign,” said Alia Brahimi at the London School of Economics.
“You also have military commanders and troops who have defected as well as tribal structures. At the moment there seems no real organization and the question is whether that will change,” Brahimi said, adding:
“Benghazi and the East were always the center of previous revolts against colonial rule, so it fits with their view of themselves. I think if Gaddafi were to go, the leadership in Benghazi should be acceptable to the Tripolitans. But there is also the risk you would get another authoritarian ruler.”
Reporting by Tom Pfeiffer, Mohammed Abbas, Peter Apps; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood