BENGHAZI, 15 March 2011 (IRIN) – Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and seat of the opposition Libyan National Council, is bracing for the fall-out from fighting in Brega, 200 kms away, with residents warning they could suffer gas and electricity shortages.
“If Gaddafi [forces] should take Brega, we will find ourselves with no gas and electricity,” a local resident of Benghazi, who gave his name as Salar, told IRIN. It was unclear by 14 March whether government forces had overrun the town, with both sides claiming they were still in control of the area.
Observers warn that the fall of eastern towns like Brega could encourage government forces, which are battling retreating armed opposition fighters, to turn their guns on Benghazi. Should that happen, fighting would disrupt fuel and water supply lines, and affect operations at the port through which some aid has been arriving.
Schools in Benghazi are closed and many young men have gone to the front line, but residents still have access to medical treatment, and insist the city is safe.
There are numerous roadblocks manned by civilians wielding Kalashnikovs. “There is no problem of security in Benghazi,” said one resident. “The police are the people; the shooting you hear in the city is just an expression of our happiness to be free.”
In a city centre school more than 100 Libyan women gathered on 12 March to organize the collection of food and pack meals for fighters at the front, one lady said: “While I am here, my young son takes the road to the front line to help with food distribution for our soldiers. There is no food shortage, you should come and check our stores for yourself.”
Local officials claim the city has enough food to last about four months. Mufta Etwaleb of the Libyan Red Crescent said the price of bread had not changed since the city fell to opposition forces about three weeks ago, but most businesses had closed down.
But other locals said food prices had started to rise. Ahmed Al-Barsi, a shop owner, told IRIN on 13 March: “Foodstuffs are already [getting] scarce in many areas. The prices in Benghazi used to be low, but now, these prices are going up.”
So far, say aid workers, the local hospitals in Benghazi – Al Jalaa, Benghazi Medical Centre and Hawari – have handled the situation “fairly well”, but have reported a shortage of nurses and medicine.
An assessment by the International Medical Corps team identified a need for medicines and medical supplies, such as surgical kits, because the supply chain from Tripoli has been affected.
In the central pharmacy, a supply line set up by Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), has delivered more than 22 tons of medicine and medical materials – including surgical sets and burn kits, dressing materials, anaesthetics and antibiotics – across eastern Libya.
“One of our main concerns is that we must find a way to position the medical supplies closer to where the needs may be,” said Simon Burroughs, MSF emergency coordinator in the city.
Foreigners want to leave
Despite assurances by local residents, foreign workers, especially those from sub-Saharan Africa, want to leave the city and return to their countries.
According to Human Rights Watch, thousands of foreign workers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe have been left homeless and penniless, and are stranded in Benghazi and on the border with Tunisia.
“I am scared here now, I want to leave but I don’t know where to,” Fatouma (who gave only one name), who moved to a centre near the stadium with her children and husband after the bombing in Brega, told IRIN.
The centre is run by the Libyan Red Crescent, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and accommodates 200 foreign workers from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Bangladesh, Chad, Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea.
A 25-year old Eritrean who identified himself as Alex said his family was still in Tripoli. “I come from Eritrea and there is no way I will go back there,” he told IRIN. “I wish I could take my family to Switzerland. I am an electrical engineer, I am educated.”
Human rights watchdogs and advocacy groups have condemned the government’s counter-insurgency campaign, saying it has targeted civilians and violated international humanitarian law.
The UN Human Rights Council has appointed an independent, international commission of inquiry into alleged violations of international human rights law in Libya and suspended its membership.