Byline: BARBARA JONES and IAN McILGORM
THE battle for Benghazi had begun with noisy brutality at first light yesterday. All of Gaddafi's vicious threats were coming true for the city's brave residents who rose up against him a month ago, desperate for independence.
He sent a tank unit rolling right into town from his strongholds in the west, past Garyounis University and down an underpass lined with residential apartment blocks. Indiscriminate tank fire woke the city with a sickening jolt at 5.30am.
Brazenly breaking his own promise of a ceasefire, Gaddafi had also positioned multiple rocket launchers along the southern approach to Benghazi. The softer thud-thud was like his victory drumroll.
For several hours the rat-tat of the rebel fighters' looted anti-aircraft guns and howitzers, and the sound of a thousand Kalashnikovs, seemed to be mere irritants in the face of Gaddafi's big guns. The war was coming, just as he had threatened.
A bomb had been dropped in a suburb at 6am - prayer time - harming families and damaging homes.
By 10.30am, all seemed lost, and the traffic was all going in one direction - out of town, as fast as possible, on the coastal highway towards Tobruk, where occasional checkpoints were the only hazard.
If there was to be aerial bombardment out there, people felt they would take their chances with it. Touchingly, the male population of whole villages had come on to the highway, brandishing flags, waving down the traffic and holding up posters entreating people not to abandon Benghazi.
Together, said the handwritten signs, we can get rid of Gaddafi. Don't let him do this to you and your loved ones. Looming large was the terrifying prospect of Gaddafi's army taking its terrible revenge.
Yet in Benghazi, the impossible happened. Somehow, the column of up to 12 of Gaddafi's tanks were beaten back by sheer people power.
One of the ageing, rusted tanks the rebels had liberated from a military store three weeks ago had incredibly mustered enough fire-power to blast away at one of Gaddafi's vehicles until the eight men inside fled. But some brave rebel fighters were armed just with rocks and bricks, crowding on to the balconies of their flats to hurl any missile they could find.
By noon, out of the chaos and confusion, the wild rumours and the crazy courage of teenage boys using Kalashnikovs, rockets and grenades for the first time, there had emerged a confident, edgy calm. The news of the imminent arrival of French and British air power, to enforce the UN's no-fly zone, had brought with it huge and emotional outpourings of relief and gratitude.
But Benghazi was not the only flashpoint yesterday. There was continued fighting in the country's third-largest city of Misurata, one of the last remaining rebel strongholds, while forces loyal to the regime were battling for control of Ajdabiya, 90 miles along the coast from Benghazi.
Jana, the official Libyan news agency, reported pro-Gaddafi volunteers were heading to strategic sites that might be targeted by foreign attacks to act as human shields.
Al-Jamahirya TV showed protests against the foreign military intervention taking place at Tripoli international airport, Gaddafi's Bab al-Azizya barracks in the capital, the airports in his home town of Sirte and his stronghold of Sebha in the south.
Opposition sources reported government forces forcibly taking people away from Zawiya, Zuwara and other areas where there has been resistance to the regime. Another claim was that the families of military personnel who might be tempted to defect were being taken to Bab al-Aziziya.
But in Benghazi, at least, the mood had turned joyous, in celebration of how the government-backed troops had been forced into retreat. …