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Libya's Rebellion Spawns A Trio Of Unlikely Heroes
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Libya's Rebellion Spawns A Trio Of Unlikely Heroes

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Libya's Rebellion Spawns A Trio Of Unlikely Heroes

Libya's Rebellion Spawns A Trio Of Unlikely Heroes
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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.

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 hide caption

toggle caption Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Map of Libya

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.

  • Libyan rebels watch smoke rising from an oil pipe just outside the town of Ras Lanuf, where many anti-regime fighters retreated after artillery and airstrikes from government troops Wednesday.
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    Libyan rebels watch smoke rising from an oil pipe just outside the town of Ras Lanuf, where many anti-regime fighters retreated after artillery and airstrikes from government troops Wednesday.
    Marco Longari/Getty Images
  • Refugees who fled Libya bathe in the Choucha refugee camp, near the Tunisian border town of Ras Jdir on Tuesday. The Red Cross and the United Arab Emirates plan to build two new camps on Tunisia's border. An estimated 100,000 mainly foreign migrants have crossed from Libya into Tunisia since Feb. 20, Tunisian officials said.
    Hide caption
    Refugees who fled Libya bathe in the Choucha refugee camp, near the Tunisian border town of Ras Jdir on Tuesday. The Red Cross and the United Arab Emirates plan to build two new camps on Tunisia's border. An estimated 100,000 mainly foreign migrants have crossed from Libya into Tunisia since Feb. 20, Tunisian officials said.
    Dominique Faget/Getty Images
  • An injured rebel fighter is brought to a hospital in Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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    An injured rebel fighter is brought to a hospital in Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
    Marco Longari/Getty Images
  • Rebel fighters run for cover as an air force jet drops a bomb on the outskirts of the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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    Rebel fighters run for cover as an air force jet drops a bomb on the outskirts of the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
    Marco Longari/Getty Images
  • Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli on Tuesday.
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    Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli on Tuesday.
    Ben Curtis/AP
  • Volunteers work on anti-Gadhafi banners at the newly set-up media center in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday. Libyan activists provide technical support and documents to journalists.
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    Volunteers work on anti-Gadhafi banners at the newly set-up media center in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday. Libyan activists provide technical support and documents to journalists.
    Nasser Nasser/AP
  • A mourner kneels over the grave of a relative recently killed in a battle between rebel fighters and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for control over the town of Bin Jawad, Libya, on Monday.
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    A mourner kneels over the grave of a relative recently killed in a battle between rebel fighters and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for control over the town of Bin Jawad, Libya, on Monday.
    Gianluigi Guercia/Getty Images
  • Rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an air force fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, Libya.
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    Rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an air force fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, Libya.
    Marco Longari/Getty Images
  • A rebel fighter shouts from his anti-aircraft machine gun position as he sees a fighter jet flying over at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf on Sunday.
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    A rebel fighter shouts from his anti-aircraft machine gun position as he sees a fighter jet flying over at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf on Sunday.
    Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images
  • Thousands of pro-Gadahfi Libyans gather in Tripoli's Green Square on Sunday to celebrate victories over rebel forces.
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    Thousands of pro-Gadahfi Libyans gather in Tripoli's Green Square on Sunday to celebrate victories over rebel forces.
    Mahmud Turkia/Getty Images
  • Moroccan expatriates arrive Sunday in the northern Moroccan port of Tangiers on a boat from the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Libya. Some 4,000 expats were repatriated by Moroccan authorities.
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    Moroccan expatriates arrive Sunday in the northern Moroccan port of Tangiers on a boat from the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Libya. Some 4,000 expats were repatriated by Moroccan authorities.
    Abdelhak Senna/Getty Images
  • A rebel fighter stands at a checkpoint Saturday in Ras Lanuf, where up to 10 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes between opposition forces and Gadhafi loyalists.
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    A rebel fighter stands at a checkpoint Saturday in Ras Lanuf, where up to 10 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes between opposition forces and Gadhafi loyalists.
    Marco Longari/Getty Images
  • Libyan rebels gather for prayer on March 4. Loyalist forces have launched a fresh air strike on opposition territory in the east, while pumped-up opposition fighters pushed forward the frontline against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
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    Libyan rebels gather for prayer on March 4. Loyalist forces have launched a fresh air strike on opposition territory in the east, while pumped-up opposition fighters pushed forward the frontline against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
    Marco Longari/Getty Images
  • A Libyan rebel fighter fires his rifle in the air at Ajdabiya's west gate on Friday.
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    A Libyan rebel fighter fires his rifle in the air at Ajdabiya's west gate on Friday.
    Gianluigi Guercia/Getty Images
  • Thousands of Bangladeshi refugees who fled Libya stand in a miles-long line as they walk to a refugee camp in Tunisia on Friday.
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    Thousands of Bangladeshi refugees who fled Libya stand in a miles-long line as they walk to a refugee camp in Tunisia on Friday.
    Joel Saget/Getty Images
  • Trash fires burn at a border area in Tunisia on Thursday, where migrant workers from Libya are living in squalid conditions. Tunisia's situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency as the country is overwhelmed with refugees.
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    Trash fires burn at a border area in Tunisia on Thursday, where migrant workers from Libya are living in squalid conditions. Tunisia's situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency as the country is overwhelmed with refugees.
    Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  • President Obama said on Thursday that he has authorized the use of U.S. military aircraft to move Egyptian refugees fleeing Libya to Tunisia.
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    President Obama said on Thursday that he has authorized the use of U.S. military aircraft to move Egyptian refugees fleeing Libya to Tunisia.
    Jim Watson/Getty Images
  • Libyan rebels in the northeastern city of Ajdabiya celebrate reports that the counterattacks led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have failed, on March 2.
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    Libyan rebels in the northeastern city of Ajdabiya celebrate reports that the counterattacks led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have failed, on March 2.
    Marco Longari/Getty Images
  • Thousands in Libya wait to cross into Tunisia via the Ras Jedir border crossing on Wednesday. The UN refugees agency has made a plea to end the gridlock at the Tunisia border.
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    Thousands in Libya wait to cross into Tunisia via the Ras Jedir border crossing on Wednesday. The UN refugees agency has made a plea to end the gridlock at the Tunisia border.
    Joel Saget/Getty Images
  • Gadhafi drives away in an electric golf cart after speaking in Tripoli on Wednesday after addressing supporters and the media.
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    Gadhafi drives away in an electric golf cart after speaking in Tripoli on Wednesday after addressing supporters and the media.
    Ben Curtis/AP
  • Defected Libyan soldiers stand guard outside an army base in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Libya, on Tuesday. Eastern cities are free from government control, but fighting continues around the capital Tripoli, controlled by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
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    Defected Libyan soldiers stand guard outside an army base in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Libya, on Tuesday. Eastern cities are free from government control, but fighting continues around the capital Tripoli, controlled by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
    Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
  • Rebels celebrate Sunday in the streets of Benghazi, no longer under the control of Gadhafi's government.
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    Rebels celebrate Sunday in the streets of Benghazi, no longer under the control of Gadhafi's government.
    Hussein Malla/AP
  • A Libyan insurgent soldier displays heavy-caliber ammunition, allegedly intended to be used against civilians in Benghazi on Sunday.
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    A Libyan insurgent soldier displays heavy-caliber ammunition, allegedly intended to be used against civilians in Benghazi on Sunday.
    Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
  • Crowds celebrate in Benghazi on Saturday, still demanding Gadhafi's removal from power.
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    Crowds celebrate in Benghazi on Saturday, still demanding Gadhafi's removal from power.
    John Moore/Getty Images
  • Libyans stomp on a defaced billboard of Gadhafi during a demonstration against his regime in the city of Tobruk on Saturday.
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    Libyans stomp on a defaced billboard of Gadhafi during a demonstration against his regime in the city of Tobruk on Saturday.
    Kevin Frayer/AP
  • A Libyan border guard walks through an empty customs hall on the Libya-Egypt border on Thursday.
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    A Libyan border guard walks through an empty customs hall on the Libya-Egypt border on Thursday.
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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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