BENGHAZI, Libya — President Barack Obama has ordered Muammar Gaddafi to stop all attacks on Libyan civilians or face military action from the United States and its allies.
According to the New York Times, Obama — in the strongest comments yet from the White House on events in Libya — said that his demands were not negotiable: Gaddafi had to pull forces back from major cities or he would be forced to.
Libyans said Friday they do not trust that Libyan leader Gaddafi, after 42 years, will abide by the cease fire called by his foreign minister.
And even he did, they said, they intend to keep fighting. The fighting outside of Benghazi has, if anything, intensified.
Brutal attacks by forces loyal to Gaddafi continued on the nearby town of Ajdabiya Friday afternoon. An eyewitness said the shelling had grown more frequent since the UN resolution allowing foreign military intervention was passed and Libya’s foreign minister declared a cease fire.
Mohammed Abdullah Gaderbauh, 51, who lives 35 kilometers west of Ajdabiya, said he saw and heard planes on bombing runs.
“We need a cease fire,” Gaderbauh said. “Two died today in air raids due to collapsed roofs … We have no communications and no ambulances. No one has been able to get in or out for days.”
Two revolutionary generals, including Khalif Al Khafter, a veteran of the Libyan war with Chad, appeared in Benghazi just after Friday Prayers, fanning the flames. The ceasefire appeared to be an afterthought.
“I don’t trust him,” said Monty Hifter, 37. “He does it because of the no-fly zone decision. If you have the power Gaddafi will listen to you, if not, he won’t.”
Hifter expected the rebel forces to fight back.
“It will take a long time to kick him out,” he said. “We have the emotion but we don’t have the experience.”
“We want a cease fire only to make it easier for us to go to Tripoli, to Azzi Palace, to the base he’s in, to hang him or put him in a cage,” said Mahmaud Gibani, 50, a Libyan who said he spent 32 years in the United States and returned last week with only his suitcase.
“He’s very clever but it’s too late for him,” another man said of Gaddafi.
After local news outlets announced, at close to midnight here, that the United Nations had approved a no-fly zone, the plaza around “Revolutionary Square” erupted with AK-47 and anti-aircraft fire, as if the rebels were fending off a full scale assault. It was a celebration, Libyan-style.
Meanwhile, U.S. allies said air strike agains Gaddafi forces would begin within hours.
The joy, however, was couched in a sense of foreboding. The opposition in Benghazi, the last-remaining rebel stronghold, knows that forces loyal to Gaddafi are not far from the city’s gates.
Gaddafi forces had surrounded the nearby town of Misurata on Friday, shelling it from above. France said military strikes would be underway “swiftly” and British and U.S. officials were said to be discussing their next steps.
Libya on Friday closed its air space to all traffic, air navigation organization Eurocontrol said, according to Sky News. The move was seen as a response to the imminent air strikes.
Earlier, Gaddafi threatened to attack passenger aircraft over the Mediterranean in retaliation for attacks launched by foreign countries.
"Any foreign military act" would expose "all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea" as targets, his government said, as reported by the Telegraph.
Reports and rumors that a heavily armed group of secret police is holed up in buildings and schools around the city and is poised for attacks have kept residents here on edge. Sporadic gunfights broke out when rebels approached these positions. A journalist said a bomb had exploded along one main street, blowing out residential windows where she was staying.
While the youth rode a wave of emotion Friday morning, thanking and praising the Americans and the rest of the international community for coming to their aid, older residents here were more skeptical, saying the action came too late.
Libyans, they said, are still dying, now in the town of Misurata.
“It’s good, but the UN should advance to protect the civilians, attack these tanks and trucks firing rockets, otherwise the no-fly zone is no use,” said an older man who refused to give his name while watching the latest news from Misurata in a cafe.
Mohammed Khalifa, 49, said U.S. President Barack Obama behaved like “a fox.”
“America first gave Gaddafi a chance to do what he wants,” Khalifa, who is an accountant, said. “America is afraid of what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know that. But when you see people dead on TV … what about human rights?
Medical students who had set up a tent across from Revolutionary Square to rebels in first aid were more positive about the news. The students said they had seen the cost of the delayed international reaction up close, describing bodies of men blown apart by Gaddafi-sponsored air strikes.
“Thank you, thank you Clinton and Obama! It’s great,” said Al Monther, 22, a pharmacy student.
“Especially we thank Mr. Sarkozy. It’s the first country to support us. We put a big French Flag up on our building, ” said Awad Zaed, 22.
The UN resolution to "take all necessary measures" to protect civilians, short of an occupation, came late Thursday and was approved with 10 votes, including France, the United States and the United Kingdom. There were no opposing votes on the 15-member council, but Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia abstained.
"Given the critical situation on the ground, I expect immediate action on the resolution's provisions," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, according to the BBC.