Benghazi gives heroes welcome to Sarkozy, Cameron

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As soon as the helicopter carrying the French and British leaders was spotted, the crowd in Benghazi, the cradle of the Libyan revolution, broke into a frenzy chanting: "One. Two. Three. Viva Sarkozy."

From early morning, the centre of the eastern city where the uprising to topple Moamer Kadhafi erupted seven months ago, had been secured roadblocks.

A makeshift dais was set up for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the city landmark that has become the symbol of the uprising.

Elite French policemen deployed in Benghazi for the historic visit, the first by world leaders since fighters of the National Transitional Council routed Kadhafi forces from Tripoli and sent the one-time strongman into hiding.

Members of the French Raid unit positioned themselves on a balcony while other policemen patrolled the street below alongside agents from Libya's new security services.

Huge signs praising the French and British leaders were strung up on one side of the square.

"Mr. Sarkozy, Benghazi loves you," read one message. "Thank You Britain," another said under a picture of Cameron in a thumbs-up pose.

But shortly before Sarkozy and Cameron were due to land in Benghazi from Tripoli, where they started the historic visit to Libya, the welcoming committee was at a loss.

Only a few dozen people have shown up to greet the guests, apparently because the stringent security forces kept many more from reaching Tahrir Square.

"President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in 20 minutes," the voice of one of the city officials boomed from a loudspeaker.

"But we have a problem. There aren't enough people and that isn't going to go down well with (the West). Please call your friends and your relatives," the official pleaded.

No sooner had he spoken that people started pouring into the square filling it up inch by inch, some women draped in Libyan flags while everybody else waved small French flags that were handed out by the organisers.

Leyla Tarhuni, a 35-year-old teacher, said she came to "greet and thank" the French president and that she also prays for him.

"Allah, the rebels and then Sarkozy," she said listing those she holds dearest to her heart.

Fraj al-Sharif, 55, agrees. "The Libyan people will never forget what Sarkozy has done for us. He is a hero and we will greet him like a hero," he said.

The promise was kept by the hundreds of people filled Tahrir Square.

As the helicopter hovers overhead and then lands nearby in the Benghazi port chants of "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) rise from the square in praise and tribute for the foreign dignitaries.

The crowd is delirious and seem to have eyes mostly for Sarkozy. Today he is the star.

"Kadhafi, you traitor. Sarkozy is here," the fans chant and "One. Two. Three. Merci (thank you) Sarkozy.

The British premier is not forgotten: "Cameron, we were waiting for you."

NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who heads the interim authority now in Libya, escorted the guests, with the French and British foreign ministers, Alain Juppe and William Hague, in tow.

"Listen up," says Abdel Jalil. "The world is watching you. You should not be divided. You should stand united, form one line. The battle for liberation is not over."

Cameron is next in line to address the crowds and showers them with praise: "Your city was an inspiration to the world," he says. "Colonel Kadhafi said he would hunt you like rats but you show the courage of lions."

The star of the show, Sarkozy, was last to speak.

"Friends in Benghazi we ask one thing. We believe in a united Libya, not a divided Libya," he says, a smile on his lips, his voice drowned by ululating women and the cheering of the boisterous crowds.

"You wanted peace, you wanted liberty, you want economic progress. France, Great Britain and Europe will be on the side of the Libyan people," says Sarkozy.

"Long live Benghazi, Libya and friendship between France and Libya," he says as applause breaks out.

© 2011 AFP

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