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Libya's Rebellion Spawns A Trio Of Unlikely Heroes

Anti-Gadhafi protesters wave their old national flag as they stand atop an abandoned army tank in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Monday.
Patrick Baz
AFP/Getty Images
Anti-Gadhafi protesters wave their old national flag as they stand atop an abandoned army tank in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Monday.

It's only been a week since Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi, fell into the hands of pro-democracy rebels. But already the uprising has its own pantheon of heroes.

Among them are a human-rights lawyer whose arrest sparked the rebellion, an air force pilot who wouldn't bomb his own people, and a balding, middle-aged oil executive whose daring raid on a base dealt the final blow to the regime in Benghazi.

The Lawyer


Fathi Terbil wears a New York Yankees baseball cap and a black-and-white kaffiyeh — the checkered scarf made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He looks pretty scruffy as he sits down for a press conference in front of journalists from all over the world addressing matters of global importance. But he's earned the right.

Terbil is a lawyer who represents the families of those killed in a prison uprising against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in 1996. Human-rights groups say 1,200 people were slaughtered at Abu Selim prison — among them, three members of Terbil's family, including his brother.

For years, he held an often solitary weekly protest in front of the courthouse, demanding justice. He was arrested seven times and says he was repeatedly tortured.

But Gadhafi's regime made a crucial mistake when it nabbed him again on Feb. 15 in Benghazi.


Protesters came out to the streets to demand his release, lighting the spark of revolution.

Now he spends his days in meetings as part of the transitional governing council of Benghazi. But he retains his humility. At 39, he says he's never had time for a wife. His only pleasures are watching sports.

He has no desire to lead Libya, he says. When this is all over, he just wants to meet a girl and settle down.

The Pilot

One of the most dramatic incidents in the uprising took place over the skies of Benghazi. Capt. Abdul Salam Al Abdely, a 49-year-old air force pilot, was told to bomb rebel targets in eastern Libya during the first days of the rebellion.

When he refused, his co-pilot put a gun to his head. Instead of complying, Abdely ejected from the plane. His father says he told him, "I couldn't bomb my own people."

The Oil Executive

The most unlikely hero of the Libyan rebellion may be Mahdi Ziu.

Across Benghazi, a huge picture of the bald, overweight, bespectacled man is attached to the gates of the state oil company. Ziu was a middle manager and father of two girls who worked in a cubicle. He suffered from diabetes.

Mohammed Abdelhafif was one of his closest friends. He says Ziu joined the protests in Benghazi as soon as they happened, but he became furious and saddened by the bloodshed.

Many of the pro-Gadhafi forces were holed up around the main military base in the city; they used their guns to mow down protesters, witnesses said. The demonstrators were having no luck breaking into the heavily defended compound.

Ziu's wife says he would come home with his clothes smeared with blood from carrying dying and wounded comrades.

On Feb. 20, sickened by the carnage, he loaded his black Kia with propane cylinders without telling anyone.

He drove to the base and rammed his car into the front gates, blowing them up.

Hamed Salah, 20, was outside the base, protesting. If it weren't for Ziu, Salah says, the demonstrators would not have been able to take over the base: He sacrificed his life for them.

Salah's brother, who was being held inside the base after being arrested by Gadhafi's elite forces, echoes the praise, saying he is sure he would have been killed if the base had not fallen.

It proved to be the turning point in the battle for Benghazi. A few hours later, the base was overrun and the city was in the hands of pro-democracy forces.

Ziu's wife, Samira, says she is proud of him. She has no son to carry his name — but such are the blessings of God, she says, that his name is now written in the history of this city.

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