Jubilant Libyans drown out Sarkozy and Cameron speeches

Hundreds of Libyans waving French and British flags and chanting anti-Muammar Gaddafi slogans mobbed President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Flying in from Tripoli, where they had also been given a rapturous welcome, the two men met crowds thanking them for the NATO campaign that helped end Gaddafi's 42-year rule.

Residents carrying photos of people killed during the uprising gathered to see Sarkozy and Cameron speak outside an empty Benghazi courthouse where the first protests began in February.

"If we could give them anything, we would -- our lives, our souls," said 70-year-old Hajja, wearing the Libyan independence flag wrapped around her body.

"If it wasn't for them, we would be history."

After nearly seven months of fighting, Libyan interim government forces backed by NATO air power control most of Libya, including major oil-producing centers and the capital, which they seized last month.

However they have met fierce resistance in a handful of pro-Gaddafi bastions including the ousted leader's birthplace Sirte, the desert town of Bani Walid and southern outpost of Sabha. Muammar Gaddafi, wanted by the International Criminal Court, is also missing.

Benghazi, 1,000 km east of Tripoli, is home to Libya's National Transitional Council and was a seat of the revolt.

"Colonel Gaddafi said he would hunt you down like rats, but you showed the courage of lions, and we salute your courage," Cameron bellowed above the chanting in Benghazi's Freedom Square.

But it was the French premier, one of the first leaders to back the anti-Gaddafi movement, who got the loudest cheers. Residents sang "1,2,3 Merci Sarkozy" and hoisted banners with slogans such as "Mr. Sarkozy, Benghazi vous aime" (Benghazi loves you).

Some in the crowd, however, voiced concerns about Libya's future. Holding a placard that said "Yes to federalism, no to centralization," 25-year-old Anise said he was afraid that Benghazi would be marginalized in the new Libya.

Another banner read "We want consulates of (the) UK and France in Benghazi."

Despite the sweeping and sudden nature of their victory in Tripoli two weeks ago, Libya's new leadership is still struggling to impose its authority across the capital and the rest of the sprawling, oil-producing desert nation.

Senior figures from cities central to the revolt, such as Benghazi and Misrata have voiced fears that power will be concentrated in Tripoli in the new Libya, despite NTC reassurances of fair treatment.

[Source: By Emma Farge, Reuters, Benghazi, 15Sep11]

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