TRIPOLI: Residents of Tripoli marked the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr on Wednesday, kneeling in prayer at the landmark Martyrs' Square as they rejoiced at the fall of Moamer Gadhafi's regime.
At dawn, tens of thousands of men, women and children poured into the square, called Green Square under Gadhafi, decked out in their holiday best, as women ululated in triumph and spontaneous cries of joy erupted.
“This is the best holiday of my life,” said Adel Masmoudi, who at 41 was born the year Gadhafi seized power.
An imam leading the dawn prayer at the square urged all Libyans to stand united and hailed the ouster of “the tyrant Gadhafi”, prompting jeers from the crowd at the mention of the fallen strongman's name.
Rebel forces had set up a security belt around the square, as armed guards patrolled the area and shooters took position on rooftops overlooking the gathering.
Many of the revellers went to Bab al-Azziziyah, Gadhafi's destroyed headquarters, to have their photographs taken as souvenirs.
Others headed to the beachfront for a dip in the Mediterranean. Rebels at checkpoints distributed sweets and toys for children and played a rap song by a Benghazi band trumpeting the end of Gadhafi's regime.
The Eid feast in Tripoli began late on Tuesday with bursts of red tracer rounds fired into the sky as a substitute for fireworks.
“This is the first time we have felt relaxed in 42 years,” Amari Abdulla, 24, told AFP. “We will celebrate as in the past but this time it is simply better. It is a new Libya.”
Anti-Gadhafi rebels claim to have “liberated” most of the African country. Negotiations are still underway for the surrender of regime loyalists in Sirte, Kadhafi's hometown.
“Look at this crowd, it's a thousand times bigger than the number of fanatics that Gadhafi assembled before the world's television cameras to claim that all Libyans were with him,” said businessman Ahmed al-Huni, 31.
Before kneeling for prayer, the crowd stood in unison, displaying victory signs, chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and praising the martyrs of the new Libyan revolution.
The imam's voice choked as he recited the words of the Koran holy book, while in the crowd many had tears running down their cheeks.
His sermon drew parallels between the entry of the rebels into Tripoli 10 days before and the conquest of Mecca by Islam's prophet Mohammed.
The preacher also praised the people of Tripoli and called for national unity, and while thanking Nato for its part in defeating Gadhafi, he rejected any foreign troops in Libya.
“The worst is over. We in Tripoli went through six months of psychological terror at the hands of Gadhafi's agents”, said civil servant Mohammed Farhat, 34, referring to the period after the outbreak of the revolt in the eastern city of Benghazi in mid-February.
“I am breathing a new air of freedom, and that's the most important because there is nothing more precious than freedom,” said 17-year-old student Adnan Shekab, who had come with his family for the unprecedented celebration.
The prayer over, the worshippers embraced each other with wishes of “Happy Eid”, handing out cakes or dates, or joining in an impromptu march around the square.
They dispersed quietly, the only sound being that of car horns in the nearby streets as people headed for home to celebrate.
In Misrata, between Tripoli and Sirte, which declared for the rebels at the beginning of the revolt and suffered huge destruction from Gadhafi's besieging forces, new explosions had ripped the air overnight.
But this time they came from celebratory fireworks as families packed the streets and shops stayed open late into the night.
The town was still closely guarded, however, with rebels, some of them heavily-armed, manning checkpoints at every major crossroads.