EXCLUSIVE - Tobruk celebrates, Libya's east abandons Gaddafi

TOBRUK, Libya Wed Feb 23, 2011 7:31am IST

Protesters chant anti-government slogans in Tobruk February 22, 2011. Libyan soldiers in the eastern city of Tobruk told a Reuters correspondent on Tuesday they no longer backed Muammar Gaddafi and said the eastern region was out of the Libyan leader's control. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Protesters chant anti-government slogans in Tobruk February 22, 2011. Libyan soldiers in the eastern city of Tobruk told a Reuters correspondent on Tuesday they no longer backed Muammar Gaddafi and said the eastern region was out of the Libyan leader's control.

Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

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TOBRUK, Libya (Reuters) - Bursts of celebratory machinegun fire echoed through the streets of Tobruk on Tuesday as anti-government protesters trashed a monument to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's most treasured work.

Truckloads of demonstrators rolled down the streets of the eastern Libyan port city, past low concrete houses, distant smokestacks and the glinting Mediterranean Sea.

Libyan soldiers told a Reuters correspondent they no longer backed Gaddafi and the eastern region was out of his control.

General Soliman Mahmoud al-Obeidy said the Libyan leader was no longer "trustworthy", adding he decided to switch allegiances after hearing the authorities had given orders to fire on civilians in the eastern city of Benghazi.

"He bombs with airplanes and uses excessive force against unarmed people," he told Reuters. "I am sure he will fall in the coming few days."

Residents said Tobruk, site of major battles between German and Allied forces in World War Two, was now in the hands of the people and had been so for about three days. They said smoke rising above the city was from a munitions store bombed by troops loyal to one of Gaddafi's sons.

Near the main square, some battered a portrait of Gaddafi with clubs. Others smashed pieces of green painted concrete, the remnants, they said, of a statue of Gaddafi's "Green Book".

"There's that absurd book!" one shouted. "There's that absurd book!"

Some burned copies of the book which was first published in 1975 and in which Gaddafi outlined the political philosophy that has underpinned his long years in power.

Naji Shelwy, 36, said: "This is a revolution. We are not protesting and we are not doing a sit-in. We want it to be called a revolution. We have spilled more blood than in Egypt and in Tunisia."

Libya's revolt comes hard on the heels of uprisings that have unseated the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

Abdel Monim Muftah, 24, a teacher, said: "We want a constitution for the country and we want a parliament."

"The first day of the protests here, the people who sell hashish and stuff like that were fighting alongside the state," Ramadan Faraj, 19, said. "They killed four people here and they wounded 50."

He pointed to a banner reading, "Down, Down with the Butcher." "Gaddafi wants to blow us up and leave," Faraj said.

FOREIGN JOURNALISTS

Protesters were delighted to find foreign journalists, organising trips around the city in army trucks and rushing up to talk and posing for photographs.

"Why were you so late?" one hotel worker asked this correspondent.

The message from protesters and the soldiers who celebrated was clear: Gaddafi has no power here. Eastern Libya is free.

"All the eastern regions are out of Gaddafi's control now ... The people and the army are hand-in-hand here," said the now former army major Hany Saad Marjaa.

Salem al-Mabry, 41, a former soldier, said: "We aren't with anyone except for the country now."

Graffiti sprayed on walls declared "down, down Gaddafi" and "enough, enough". Men in military uniform stood in the main road directing traffic. They said they no longer had any allegiance to the leader who has ruled for 41 years.

"Food is available, the pharmacies are open, the hospitals are open. Everything is open. Everyone has extended their hand to help, young and old, men and women," said Fayyez Hussein Mohamed, 59.

Protesters gathered near a mosque in the middle of city centre, where more graffiti read "go 2 hell Gaddafi", "game over Gaddafi" and "Tobruk free today".

Nearby stood the burned-out shell of a police station, which residents said was set ablaze on Feb. 18, the same day they say four young men were killed by police.

One held a poster with a Libyan flag with a boot kicking a cartoon Gaddafi out. It read: "Libya is free, free and Gaddafi should get out".

(Writing by Edmund Blair and Tom Perry in Cairo; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Ron Popeski)

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