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With Gadhafi's forces on the move, Benghazi rebels brace for death

BENGHAZI, Libya — Even before forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi took back the oil-rich towns of Brega, Ras Lanouf and Zawiya, and before they allegedly assassinated a correspondent for al Jazeera, someone in the government turned on cell phone text messaging services just long enough to remind at least one rebel here of their reach.

"Soon," read the ominous one-word message, whose source could only have been the government, since no one else has been allowed to send text messages since the revolt here began.

That message hit home Monday as Gadhafi's forces dropped bombs on the city of Ajdabiya, 100 miles to the south and the last city still in rebel hands between Gadhafi's forces and this rebel capital.

But the battle for Ajdabiya won't be an easy one. Ras Lanouf and Brega are little more than subdivisions erected in the 1980s to house oil workers. No one is from Ras Lanouf or Brega, and when the fighting came there, residents quickly fled.

Ajdabiya, however, is a proper city, entrenched in Libya's history. Natives of Ajdabiya have vowed to stay and fight, suggesting a battle that could resemble the three-week fight for Zawiya in the west, which Gadhafi's forces won after bombarding the town with artillery and tank fire.

If Ajdabiya falls, Benghazi might not be far behind. And that too promises to be a bloody struggle.

Rebels in Benghazi say they have little choice but to fight to the death. If they beat back Gadhafi's forces, then they will survive. If they don't, and they aren't killed in the fighting, they will die anyway when Gadhafi assassinates them for rising up.

Either outcome is better than living under the regime, they say.

"It's OK if I die for my country," said the usually affable Osama, 28, who did not want his last name published for security reasons, even though the government had sent him the "soon" text message. "I am worried for all of us."

This city still appears liberated. Residents still whiz through the streets with the pre-Gadhafi flag hanging out of their cars, past a stream of often-misspelled graffiti cursing the dictator. They have a new government, and there are no front lines or air strikes here.

But the war has never been far. Pro-Gadhafi spies are blamed for assassinations, grenade attacks, and, in the case of Osama, personal threats by text message.

Rebels here believe that Gadhafi's forces are all around them. They lurk outside the courthouse that serves as the capital building for the liberated east, sometimes armed with a camera. They sit in vans outside hotels that house journalists and aid workers and silently watch who comes and goes.

No one knows precisely how many Gadhafi sympathizers are here. They were everywhere before the revolt, residents say. Now the rebels watch for small signs. Rebels greet each other with V for victory at checkpoints throughout the city. Gadhafi's supporters do not.

The rebels are quick to blame Gadhafi's men for attacks. When al Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al Jabir was ambushed outside this liberated city, rebels blamed Gadhafi sympathizers.

Jabir had been coming back from a story on Omar Mukhtar, a Libyan independence figure who fought the Italian colonial regime. Mukhtar is the only person other than Gadhafi featured on Libyan money.

A sedan followed Jabir's vehicle; assassins shot him three times in the back.

Thousands of Libyans gathered outside their makeshift government headquarters and mourned the newcomer as though he were a hometown martyr. He too, was a victim of Gadhafi, they said.

Gadhafi's supporters also get the blame for a March 4 explosion at the rebels' largest weapons depot. The blast killed more than 100 people and literally shook the city.

And Gadhafi's men are blamed for the attack last week at the Uzu Hotel, which houses journalists and some aid workers. Men in a passing car threw a grenade at the hotel, injuring no one but blowing a hole in the lobby window.

After every attack, residents here vow to keep celebrating life without Gadhafi. They say they consider Gadhafi retaking this town impossible, regardless of his recent gains. Benghazi is different. It has been a sore on Gadhafi's side since his rule began. Indeed, its history and the revolutions of Libya are intertwined, from the Ottoman Empire, to Italy to now.

Given that, living with his henchmen is a small price to pay to feel liberated.

"We will all die first," before he could regain control, Osama said. "Either way, we will die."


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