Tobruk - Eastern Libya is no longer under the control of Muammar Gaddafi after a revolt spread like wildfire across the country, soldiers who no longer backed the Libyan leader told a Reuters correspondent on Tuesday.
Tobruk residents said the city was in the hands of the people and had been for three days. They said smoke rising above the city was from a munitions store bombed by troops loyal to one of Gaddafi's sons. There was the occasional explosion.
"All the eastern regions are out of Gaddafi's control... The people and the army are hand-in-hand here," the now former army major Hany Saad Marjaa told the correspondent, one of the first foreign journalists to enter Libya during the uprising.
The Libyan side of the Egyptian border was controlled by armed anti-Gaddafi rebels who welcomed visitors from Egypt.
One held up a picture of Gaddafi, upside down, and defaced with the words "the butcher tyrant, murderer of Libyans", the correspondent said when passing through the town of Musaid, just inside the Libyan side of the border.
The men were welcoming and waved cars through.
Gaddafi used tanks, helicopters and war planes to fight a growing revolt, witnesses said on Tuesday, as the veteran leader scoffed at reports he was fleeing after four decades in power.
Demonstrations spread to Tripoli from the second city Benghazi, cradle of the revolt that has engulfed a number of towns and which residents say is now in the hands of protesters.
Citizens in Tobruk said people had worked together to get back to normal. Rebels with knives, clubs and assault rifles guarded the streets. Armed men flashed V-for-victory signs and posed for pictures with their weapons.
"Food is available, the pharmacies are open, the hospitals are open. Everything is open," Fayyez Hussein Mohamed, 59, said, adding: "Everyone has extended their hand to help, young and old, men and women".
A group of men in military uniform stood in the main road, directing traffic. They said they no longer had any allegiance to Gaddafi. Around 200 people gathered in the central part of town chanting: "The people want the downfall of the regime" and "Down, Down with Gaddafi". Graffiti sprayed on walls said: "Enough is enough".
Egypt's army said Libyan border guards had been withdrawn, with Libya's side of the border controlled by "people's committees", without giving details of their allegiance.
One Libyan, who could not be identified, said earlier on the road to Tobruk that Benghazi had been "liberated" from a battalion belonging to one of Gaddafi's sons since Saturday.
Driving along a stretch of desert road with the occasional low-brick house and goat herds, groups of rebels with assault rifles and shotguns, waved cheerily at the passing cars.
Personality cult "Photo! Photo!" they said, flicking the victory sign and posing with their weapons.
One of the Libyans, mocking the personality cult promoted by Gaddafi, pointed at graffiti which read: "No God, but Allah".
Security forces have cracked down fiercely on demonstrators across the country, with fighting in Tripoli after it erupted in Libya's oil-producing east last week, in a reaction to decades of repression and following uprisings that have toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone from the Libyan town of Al Bayda, one Libyan described on Tuesday how forces using aircraft and tanks killed 26 local people, including his own brother.
Libyans were now "scared of their own shadows", said Marai Al Mahry, from the Ashraf tribe, who named his dead brother as Ahmed al Mahry.
"This is worse than anyone can imagine, this is something no human can fathom. They are bombing us with planes, they are killing us with tanks," he said, sobbing uncontrollably as he appealed for help.
Mahry accused forces loyal to Gaddafi of indiscriminate killing on the streets of the coastal town, which lies east of Benghazi. "They shoot you just for walking on the street".
His account could not be independently corroborated.
No going back "The only thing we can do now is not give up, no surrender, no going back. We will die anyway, whether we like it or not. It is clear that they don't care whether we live or not. This is genocide," said 42-year-old Mahry.
Describing the climate of fear created by the crackdown, he said: "Libyans are scared of their own shadows, children can't sleep. It is like we are on another planet."
Keen to send his message to neighbouring Egypt and beyond, he said: "I call on the people of the world - I call on the Egyptians - to pray for us, to demonstrate for us."
Egypt's new military rulers - who took power following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11 - said the main border crossing would be kept open round-the-clock to allow the sick and wounded to enter.
Piled onto tractors and trucks, hundreds of Egyptians streamed over the border from Libya on Tuesday, describing a wave of killing and banditry unleashed by the revolt.
A witness who had fled the city of Benghazi said at least 2 000 people had been killed there - a figure that could not be corroborated but which indicated the scale of destruction people believed was wrought by a week of violence.
Egyptians described a treacherous journey out of Libya in which they were shot at by bandits taking advantage of the chaos.
They took everything Hassan Kamel Mohamed, a 24-year-old steel worker who had fled from Tobruk, said: "There were thugs everywhere and they would pull weapons on you at any time."
"We were trying to sleep at night but we couldn't. Thugs would fire in the air every fifteen minutes. They took our money, they took everything."
Mohamed Bayoumy, 37, said he had been travelling for three days in the western part of the country and that there were armed groups along the road, demanding bribes.
Another man, who declined to be named, said: "The situation is bad for Egyptians right now."
"They took money from us and shot at us," he said, declining to give his name.
"Five people died on the street where I live," Mohamed Jalaly, 40, told Reuters at Salum on his way to Cairo from Benghazi.
"You leave Benghazi and then you have... nothing but gangs and youths with weapons," he added. "The way from Benghazi is extremely dangerous," he said.
Someone asked whether this will also happened to Mugabe one day, he asked "are the people of Zimbabwe brave enough to face bullets and die for their freedom?"
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