BENGHAZI, Libya (AFP) – Shots ring out and explosions boom around the clock in Benghazi, the bustling Mediterranean city where Libyan rebels battling to topple Moamer Kadhafi have their headquarters.
But there is no fighting here. What sometimes sounds like a pitched battle is simply the Arab tradition of celebratory shooting taken to revolutionary extremes.
A startling example came shortly after midnight on May 1 when the night sky was lit up by red tracer fire, the rattle of machine guns came from every direction and blasts made buildings shake across this city of 700,000 people.
Had Kadhafi’s forces sneaked up on the town — which lies deep inside the rebel-held east of the country — and launched an assault? Had the insurgents started fighting among themselves?
Such were the questions worried Western journalists asked as they peeked out of their hotel room windows.
But after frantic phone calls it emerged that this was merely a party sparked by reports from Tripoli that a NATO airstrike had killed Seif al-Arab Kadhafi, a son of the Libyan strongman who has been in power for 41 years.
Another frenzy of festive shooting came mid-week when, on the city’s seafront where the rebels have a headquarters in a courthouse, a dozen tribesmen in traditional garb rode their horses into town to declare allegiance to the rebels.
An excited mob of several hundred people followed them to a rallying point, where at regular intervals men in the middle of the packed crowd pointed their Kalashnikovs or their pistols upwards and let rip into the clear blue sky.
For good measure, someone lobbed some home-made explosives into the nearby sea, creating a great whoosh and sending a column of Mediterranean water ten metres (30 feet) into the air. Then he did it again about ten minutes later.
The seafront, where on any given day several rallies are held that are invariably accompanied by gunfire, is the epicentre of Benghazi’s celebratory shooting phenomenon.
But the young men who make up most of the rebel force fire their weapons wherever and whenever they feel like it — as they zoom through the streets in pick-up trucks, as they stand guard somewhere, or after their prayers.
“I fire my gun when there is good news and when there is bad news,” said 20-year-old Mohamed Rajab as he kept watch Thursday outside a rebel building on the corniche.
The last time he fired his assault rifle was about an hour ago, he said.
“To celebrate the departure of Kadhafi, the fact that he is no longer in Benghazi,” he replied, declining to elaborate on the reasons for this sudden burst of joy that came many weeks after Kadhafi’s troops were pushed back from the city.
Another armed young man said he too often let off a few rounds when he had some sort of emotion to express.
But he conceded that such action would have landed him in jail during the military service he did in Kadhafi’s army, before the so-called Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East, toppling Tunisia’s and Egypt’s autocratic rulers and inspiring Libyans to rise up.
“Only the high-ranking soldiers were allowed to shoot in the air back then,” he said.
One man who was planning celebratory explosions ended up injuring several people last Wednesday when the TNT he had in his parked car blew up, sparking panic on the seafront and fuelling fears of terror attacks by Kadhafi’s spooks.
Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, the military spokesman for the rebel government, said he had no problem with the ubiquitous shooting in Benghazi, where the revolution was born in mid-February.
“They (the rebel fighters) have weapons and explosives. But they have morals, you are safe. Don’t worry,” Bani told AFP when asked if the military command was going to try and put a stop to the random firing.
Most locals AFP questioned said they regarded the celebratory fire as entirely normal, a jubilant expression of revolutionary zeal.
“There is no fear because if someone fires they are firing out of joy. Sure, the bullets come down again from the sky. But if they land on someone’s head then that is God’s will,” said Aziza Ahmed Mohamed, a mother of five.
There are some dissenting voices, however.
Critics point out that apart from the risk of someone getting hurt, the ammunition would be better used on the battleground in places like the besieged port of Misrata or the western mountains where pockets of rebels are holding out against Kadhafi’s forces.
Samia Ayissa, a 32-year-old out strolling with her two toddlers, said she was furious that young men with little or no military experience were allowed to behave as they do in Benghazi.
“Of course I’m afraid because there are lots of young men playing with weapons in the street. I’m afraid for my babies,” she said.