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Benghazi residents waiting for their endgame: Gadhafi's demise

Libyan women walk past a man holding a placard reading in French "Thank you Sarkozy" in a street of Benghazi on March 24, 2011, as rebels battled on to the eastern oil town of Ajdabiya.

PATRICK BAZ/Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

The furthest point reached by Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's tanks has become a landmark in Benghazi, as residents pause to gawk at the broken columns and arches of shops smashed by the military hardware that rolled into Libya's second city on Saturday. It's a reminder of how terribly close this revolution came to getting snuffed out, before an onslaught of foreign air power shifted the momentum in the rebels' favour.

Somebody has jammed rusty iron bars into the rubble to keep a crumbling storefront from collapsing entirely; this also appears to suit the mood in the rebels' main city, where everything is jerry-rigged and fragile.

After a panicked evacuation last week, some residents are trickling back. One cellphone network has resumed service, although it's more common to see residents frowning at the sound of error messages than actually speaking on their handsets. Most storefronts remain shuttered. In the few cafés that have reopened, all customers sit facing the television.

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But the news no longer inspires the kind of fear that seized this city during Col. Gadhafi's bloody advances.

"We feel safer, now," says Rafa Maadi, a café owner, sipping strong coffee and only occasionally glancing up at the live coverage of the war.

Any gain in security is still a relative measure, in a city where injured fighters arrive by the hour from front lines only two hours' drive south. Prominent figures in the fledgling rebel government are not sleeping in their own houses, trying to avoid assassination by Gadhafi agents still rumoured to be lurking among them.

Still, the news blaring in Mr. Maadi's small coffee shop continued to give the locals satisfaction on Thursday: A French jet destroyed a Libyan military plane after it touched down in the besieged city of Misurata; NATO appeared ready to assume lead responsibility for the no-fly zone; the rebel military said it expects to get weapons and communications gear from foreign allies.

The mere presence of so many men in the coffee shop suggested that the pace of fighting on the eastern front has fallen from its frantic peak, as some of those huddled around tiny cups and wreathed in cigarette smoke have put down the guns they picked up earlier. That is now official policy for the rebel administration, which recently erected billboards asking people to give back any firearms they raided from military depots; criminality now trumps defence as a leading security concern within the city limits.

Among those who now sip coffee instead of fighting is Hussein Tawrghi, 42, who grabbed a Kalashnikov and rushed to confront the pro-Gadhafi forces as they broke past the city's southern gates. Written material and cellphones found on the bodies of the invaders convinced him that the regime had planned a massacre in Benghazi. "They had orders to kill any man from age 10 to 60," he says.

Rebels say it was their own firepower on the ground that forced the tanks and troop carriers back out of the city on Saturday morning, flushing them out into open territory where French war planes reduced them to charred hulks. But everybody here seems to understand that disaster was narrowly averted. Rebel demonstrators now wave the flags of France and Qatar, whose jets and media, respectively, have played a key role in supporting the revolution.

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After enjoying a few quiet days to reflect on the battle, Mr. Tawrghi says he has decided on a way of expressing his gratitude for the air strikes. He serves as manager of the soccer pitch previously known as Hugo Chavez Stadium, named in honour of Col. Gadhafi's close Venezuelan ally.

Some rebels now call it the Martyrs of February Stadium, reflecting the sacrifices of those who died in the early days of the revolution.

But Mr. Tawrghi says he would prefer to rename the facility Sarkozy Stadium, after the French President.

His idea is greeted with a chorus of approval in the café. Several men repeat the phrase, "Sarkozy Stadium!" clearly enjoying the fact that the world now appears to be conclusively on their side.

That self-assurance also shows in the rebels' military strategy.

Rather than plunge into urban warfare with pro-Gadhafi forces now trapped in the nearby city of Ajdabiya, the rebels appear to be waiting for them to surrender. A religious leader is serving as a mediator, and they are now discussing terms. The pro-Gadhafi forces initially asked for safe passage to retreat back to the regime stronghold of Surt, but rebels turned down the request because they wanted to "interrogate" them, a rebel military spokesman says.

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Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani also said that rebels had destroyed 22 government tanks around Misurata, and another five near the western city of Zintan.

"For those betting on the dictator, you are betting on a losing horse," Col. Bani says, looking crisply dressed in the blue uniform of the Libyan air force. "The endgame is already known."

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