Libyan opponents of Muammar Gaddafi, fearing the worst if his rapidly advancing forces take Benghazi, sought to remind the outside world on Wednesday that their revolt began as a peaceful protest.
A leading figure in Benghazi, the country's second city and the last large population centre still under opposition control, and a prominent exile in Geneva said the targets of Gaddafi's troops and militia were essentially just angry civilians.
"This movement began, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, as a countrywide peaceful protest against Gaddafi's failure in 41 years of absolute rule to give the people a decent life," said the exile, Soliman Bouchuiguir.
"We started as peaceful protesters demanding our rights to live and to have dignity and worth, and he forced on us a war," said Dr Jallal Al Gallal of the opposition's Libyan Transitional Council in Benghazi in a telephone interview with the BBC.
"We are not rebels ... Please don't call us that," she said.
"We are the people of Libya with a just cause and just dreams .... We are only people who demand the simplest things any human being would want."
Both said they believed there would be a "bloodbath" if Gaddafi's soldiers and fanatically loyal militias got into Benghazi, which harbours bitter memories of a 1996 prison massacre of some 1,600 dissidents, many from the city.
PEOPLE WILL FIGHT
"The people there will fight with what they have, and it is not much in the face of his tanks and missiles and machine-guns," said Bouchuiguir, president of the Libyan League for Human Rights which has members all over Europe.
"We don't even have weapons," said Al Jallal.
The protests began in mid-February after long-ruling presidents in Tunisia and Egypt were ousted by mass popular protests on the streets of their towns and cities which they initially tried to put down by force.
The Libyan leader also initially sought to crush the protesters -- whom he dubbed rats and drug addicts -- but failed to stop them and his forces essentially withdrew to the capital Tripoli and a handful of other centres to regroup.
But the bloodshed among civilians brought mass defections among his diplomats abroad, and in Geneva and New York even his notional allies in Islamic and African countries abandoned him, drumming him out of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The Geneva-based Council, whose developing country majority routinely springs to the defence of any of its members, gave its support to a motion accusing Gaddafi of massive human rights abuses and military attacks on his own population.
As some army units defected to the protest movement and young men raided abandoned armouries, it gained some light weaponry. But the untrained would-be fighters had no answer to Gaddafi's air force or heavy equipment.
When he struck at the city of Zawiyah west of Tripoli last week, leaving much of the centre in ruins, his militia and security police began arresting young men and taking them away to secret locations, Bouchuiguir said.
"He has underground prisons where he keeps his opponents, and no-one can visit them," said the exile representative, a long-time official of the United Nations now retired.
And an official U.N. report on a visit by a senior official of the world body to Zawiyah on Tuesday drew a picture of a ghost town heavily patrolled by soldiers and police with few shops open and no women and children to be seen.
Gaddafi's son Saif -- who has fiercely denounced the protesters-turned-fighters -- said on Wednesday that the Libyan army had told the people of Benghazi to lay down their arms, predicting: "Everything will be over in 48 hours."
In her BBC interview, Al Gallal said that if Gaddafi's forces enter Benghazi "he will kill citizens, he will kill dreams, he will destroy us more and more." It would be on the outside world's conscience that it had not intervened, she declared.