By Alexander Dziadosz
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – The eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of revolt against Muammar Gaddafi, was alive with celebration on Wednesday with thousands out on the streets, setting off fireworks and condemning the Libyan leader.
Jubilant rebels and supporters thronged the city center, waving red, green and black monarchy-era flags and giving out snacks and juice to passing cars, which honked their horns in a giant party. People danced, cheered and played loud music.
Anti-Gaddafi protesters hung effigies with â€œMercenariesâ€ written on them from lamp-posts, saying paid gunmen from Africa were sent by Gaddafi to try to suppress them. â€œLibya is Free! Libya is Free!,â€ they chanted. â€œAllahu Akbar (God is Great).â€
Alongside charred buildings scarred by the violence, one man held up a picture of Gaddafiâ€™s head grafted on to a pigâ€™s body as trucks full of exuberant opponents of the Libyan leader screeched around the streets of â€œFree Benghazi.â€
â€œBen Ali, Hosni, Muammar,â€ read graffiti on a city billboard setting Gaddafiâ€™s name alongside the names of the ousted leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
After a week of violence in which it threw off government control, this elegant Mediterranean port of about 700,000 is starting to run itself under â€œpeopleâ€™s committeesâ€ as the dust of rebellion settles. In the east of Libya, many soldiers have withdrawn from active service.
Hossam Ibrahim Sherif, director of the Benghazi city health center, told this correspondent that about 320 people had been killed in Benghazi, the city whose uprising has led the growing challenge to Gaddafiâ€™s 41 years in power.
Anti-Gaddafi festivities congregated at the court house, the security building next door had been torched in the ancient eastern stronghold that for years rivaled the Libyan capital.
Gaddafiâ€™s increasingly desperate attempts to crush the revolt have killed as many as 1,000 people and split Libya, Italyâ€™s Foreign Minister said Wednesday.