Libya's beleaguered rebels may have gotten a reprieve. The United Nations Security Council not only passed a resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya but authorized ground attacks on regime forces besieging the opposition stronghold of Benghazi. Many of the rebel fighters and residents who have fled the front lines to the eastern city of Tobruk in recent days had said that without speedy international assistance, disaster would unfold within the next 24 hours. At the news of the U.N. vote, Tobruk erupted immediately into celebratory gunfire, fireworks, and fog horns sounding from ships in the harbor. It was an emotional reaction that eclipsed rebel joy at their conquests of Brega and Ras Lanuf barely two weeks before cities they have since lost.
In Gaddafi's capital, the regime's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told foreign journalists in a press conference at 2 a.m. Tripoli time that the Libyan government was "ready immediately" to implement a ceasefire, but needed further discussions with UN officials about the "technicalities."
Looking relaxed and smiling, Kaim said Libya agreed with the resolution's aims to maintain the country's unity and protect civilians a striking shift in stance after weeks of belligerent statements from the regime about those seeking a no-fly zone.
Officials in Tripoli for days have said that they believe the no-fly zone will have come too late, since government troops have pushed rebels hundreds of miles back towards Benghazi. In an interview a week ago, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the powerful son of the Libyan leader, dismissed the push by the U.S. and Europe for action in Libya, saying, "They [Western leaders] have the sense that the game is over in Libya. We will win the war."
That confidence about impending victory before the UN vote has built steadily day by day, as Gaddafi's troops have stormed through rebel positions along the Mediterranean coast, pushing the anti-government fighters hundreds of miles back towards Benghazi and making a no-fly zone increasingly urgent.
As the regime dismissed the UN debate as coming too late at least before the vote so anti-government forces said that without it they faced imminent disaster. In a secret interview in Tripoli just 12 hours before the vote, a resident of the defeated rebel city of Zawiyah 30 miles away, describing the grim vengeance exacted there by the regime's security forces, said, "Where is the world? We need more than a no-fly zone, we need a no-ground zone."
The rollback of the opposition had led to a visible panic. Rebel fighters manning the checkpoint leading into Tobruk, which is the closest large city to the Egyptian border, said that hundreds of families have fled this way over the past few days, up the desert road from Ajdabiyah, the city currently being bombarded by Gaddafi. Many, they say, particularly those with injuries, have continued on to the Egyptian border. Said, a mechanic who gave only his first name because he fears for the relatives he left behind, has found shelter for his family in an empty student dormitory in Tobruk. He talked about his nightmares about the situation if a no-fly zone was not imposed. "If they don't die by guns, they will die without food," he said. And, after Gaddafi cordoned off the city, a slaughter would ensue.
For the civilians-turned-revolutionaries from Tobruk to Benghazi, the large-scale retreat of rebel forces from Ras Lanuf, Brega, and Ajdabiyah over the past two weeks had been a sobering experience. Tawfik al-Shohiby, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Tobruk, is like many of the men and women who left behind a normal life as protests swept through Libya in mid-February and anti-government forces quickly pushed Gaddafi loyalists out of the east. His friends are lawyers, professors, engineers and oil workers in this eastern port city. Many are intellectuals; often middle to upper middle class by Libyan standards, and their driving motivation is a desire to live free from fear, they say.
But over the past month of uprising, many of them have donned fatigues for the first time in their lives, raised the Free Libyan flag above their homes or plastered it to their cars, and thrown themselves wholeheartedly into protesting for, and then fighting for, a new country. They have a huge stake in retaining what they have won so far. If Gaddafi regains control of eastern Libya, they have no doubt what that means. "What would happen he would kill maybe 200 people in Tobruk alone; people like me and my friends in the square," says al-Shohiby. "He would tell people, 'Now you have to pay for what you did.' And he will tell the world, 'Everything is fine. We killed the terrorists.' And he will force the civilians to go out into the streets with green flags."
The situation near Benghazi was already tense prior to the U.N. vote. Residents and rebel leaders said that warplanes had bombed the city's airport and several other sites in the city, including a military base, and dropped leaflets from the sky. It was consistent with the days leading up to the assault on Ajdabiyah. By late Thursday afternoon, the regime had imposed a blackout on the country's phone lines.
A 25-year-old nutritionist living on the southern outskirts of Benghazi told TIME by phone earlier in the day that she had watched two warplanes bomb the airport near her house around 1 p.m.. She had returned from her graduate studies in Europe to join her family for what she thought would be a revolution one month ago. They had begun to debate whether to flee the country. "I put my name in everything in all the revolutionary activities in the city. And I've been very active in Facebook since the start of the revolution and I've been using my real name. So I think they'll come after me," she says. "My mom says if things get worse we'll have to leave."
There is no guarantee that Gaddafi's forces will cease their advance, in spite of the U.N. authoritization to attack. The fate of Ras Lanuf and Brega, as well as the assault on Ajdabiyah, have filled the locals with fear. Says the nutritionist, "We live right at the crux between two main entrances [to Benghazi]. If he enters from the south, we're going to be attacked, because we're right by the highway from Ajdabiyah," she says. "So we're not really worried about the bombing. We're more worried about the troops. Because we know what they did in Zawiyah and Brega they've been raping and killing."
In Ajdabiyah, the bombing campaign continued throughout Thursday, according to people in Tobruk who had spoken to friends and relatives there. "They are still bombing in Ajdabiyah and they are bombing the houses," says Said, who had fled the town, referring to a conversation that he had with his brother before the phone lines went dead. He was unsure of whether there were government troops in the streets. But said they surely controlled the perimeter. "Everybody is staying in his house. They can't go out." He said his neighbor was shot dead by government forces on Tuesday night, as he tried to escape the city through the northern checkpoint to meet his brother who was waiting in a village 20 kilometers up the road. "We need the European people to come quickly and save these families," he says. "The American people have the weapons to kill Gaddafi."