TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Thousands of Libyans packed into Muammar Gaddafi’s heavily fortified Tripoli compound on Saturday to form a human shield against possible air strikes by allied forces.
Fireworks erupted into the night sky and people fired defiant shots into the air at the compound after allied warplanes went into action in eastern Libya to stop the Libyan leader’s forces attacking the rebel-held city of Benghazi.
Libyans from all walks of life streamed into the Bab Al-Aziziyah compound, shouting slogans and holding portraits of Gaddafi. Loudspeakers boomed songs praising the leader.
“My mother and father told me that they (Western warplanes) would attack the compound so I came here to protect our leader,” said one 10-year-old boy, Mahmoud.
Western forces hit targets along the Libyan coast on Saturday, using strikes from air and sea to force Gaddafi’s troops to cease fire and end attacks on civilians.
French planes fired the first shots in what is the biggest international military intervention in the Arab world since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, destroying tanks and armored vehicles in the region of the rebels’ eastern stronghold, Benghazi.
Hours later, British and U.S. warships and submarines launched more than 110 Tomahawk missiles against air defenses around the capital Tripoli and the western city of Misrata, which has been besieged by Gaddafi’s forces, U.S. military officials said.
The huge Tripoli complex, which includes military barracks, was the target of a 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan said it was in retaliation for what he called Libyan complicity in the bombing of a Berlin night club.
The government took foreign reporters to the normally closed site on a rare visit to showcase people’s support for Gaddafi.
Inside the compound’s high olive-green walls, people danced to a song setting an oft-repeated phrase from recent Gaddafi speeches — “house by house, alley by alley” — to a melody.
An image of a hand crushing an F-16 fighter was superimposed on the window of Gaddafi’s house, which was gutted in the 1986 attack.
Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha paid an unexpected visit and stood on a vehicle as flag-waving supporters cheered her.
“My whole family is here. We are all willing to die right here to protect Libya and the leader Gaddafi,” said Basma Amoume, 27, a retirement fund employee, holding her 6-month old daughter in her arms.
The gates of the compound, the heart of Gaddafi’s powerful security apparatus which is usually off-limits to the general public, were wide open, and people continued to stream into it throughout the evening.
“We are here. We are ready to die for our leader,” said Om Abdel Qadir, an Arabic language teacher. She said her six sons had all volunteered to fight for Gaddafi.
“Even if we do not have weapons, people will do everything they can to fight. You will see people on every street, pouring hot oil on the enemy.” Mahmoud el-Mansouri, a farmer, said people were angry.
“There are 5,000 tribesmen who are preparing to come here to fight with our leader. They had better not try to attack our country,” he said.
“We will open up Libya’s deserts and allow Africans to flood to Europe to blow themselves up as suicide bombers. ... We are ready to attack embassies abroad.” Mustafa Abdelgadir, a 27-year-old man, added: “Everyone has weapons training and we are all prepared to fight.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina