ALGIERS (Reuters) - It was perhaps inevitable that the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi would begin in Benghazi, the ancient eastern stronghold that for years rivaled the Libyan capital.
After a week of violence during which it threw off government control, the city of about 700,000 is starting to run itself under “people’s committees” as the dust of rebellion settles.
It is not clear how many people died in the elegant Mediterranean port where forces loyal to Gaddafi put down the first protests, led by lawyers, doctors and other professionals who camped out on the courthouse steps to express their anger at the arrest of a human rights activist.
But it is clear from witness accounts that even those attending the funerals of the victims were not spared police bullets.
One man, who did not want to be identified, told a Reuters correspondent inside Libya that Benghazi was “liberated” from a battalion belonging to one of Gaddafi’s sons on Saturday.
Soldiers in the eastern region where Benghazi is located said Gaddafi’s writ no longer ran in the area. In Benghazi, they had switched their allegiance to the protesters, tipping the balance in the struggle for control of the city.
A Benghazi resident who gave his name only as Ali said by telephone: “Benghazi is controlled by the youth of the revolution. The headquarters of the leadership is inside the city court where there are lawyers and elders.”
“But there are also youths everywhere in the city. They clean the streets and direct traffic.”
Mouftah Al Areydi, a 55-year-old resident, said soldiers had refused orders to shoot at unarmed protesters, defying mercenaries hired by the government.
“We want the international media to drive in with their cameras and see for themselves what they have done to Benghazi. They were burning people alive. When the army refused to fire at their brothers, the mercenaries set them on fire.”
A lawyer in Benghazi said a security committee formed by civilians there on Monday had arrested 36 “mercenaries” from Chad, Niger and Sudan who were hired by Gaddafi’s elite Praetorian Guard to fight in the city.
“We found their passports inside the guard’s camp at al-Fadeel Benamer. Some of them sustained light injuries after scuffles with the militants,” the lawyer said.
“A judge is questioning them and they are being defended by volunteer lawyers from Benghazi. They said that they were being paid between $1,000 and $20,000 per day to shoot and kill protesters.”
Salahuddin Abdullah, a self-described protest organizer, spoke of a new feeling of “celebration and euphoria” in Benghazi now that control had passed to the protesters.
“People are ecstatic about the situation. Right now it is calm. The city is no longer under military control,” he told Al Jazeera International television.
Protesters were trying to establish order through the creation of self-rule committees, and had set up a system to distribute basic foodstuffs, he said.
“People are handing in the guns they have seized to the mosques and other public places. Everyone is chipping in. We are setting up committees to run the city.
Another resident, too frightened to give his name, told Reuters the city remained tense despite attempts to bring life back to normal under the new leadership.
“Benghazi is quiet today but people did not sleep last night because they feared air bombings.”
“I see no presence of security forces in Benghazi. The city is controlled by the youth of the revolution.”
He added: “Life has not returned to normal here because only some shops and chemists are open. Many other services are still closed since Thursday. This morning I drove several kilometers from Benghazi to find a petrol station.”
Runways at Benghazi airport were destroyed in the violence and passenger planes cannot land there, Egypt’s foreign minister said.
The rebels have also taken control of Al Bayda, an eastern town about 200 km (125 miles) from Benghazi and the scene of fierce clashes last week between protesters and security forces in which dozens of people died.
“The young people have started to clean the streets. They have gasoline, the shops and bakeries are open and life is starting to get back to normal,” a resident told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Dina Zayed in Cairo and Souhail Karam in Rabat; writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Tim Pearce