Bombs don't stop business boom in Libya's Benghazi

Thu Nov 14, 2013 4:00am EST
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By Ulf Laessing and Ghaith Shennib

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Shop assistants showcase elegant Italian menswear, next door a fast food restaurant buzzes with customers, and nearby a German sportswear shop hawks the latest high-end running shoes.

The scene could be downtown New York or Milan if not for the occasional gun battles, car bombs and bearded Islamist fighters flourishing rifles and fundamentalist beliefs.

In Benghazi, Libya's eastern metropolis, the militias that plague much of the country flourish alongside a boom in sales of foreign brands catering to the city's burgeoning rich class.

Libya's second-largest city stands for almost everything wrong with the North African country and its fragile central government since the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.

Tripoli government has little say in the rundown port where militias and Islamists set up private checkpoints, often beneath black Al Qaeda flags. The U.S. ambassador was killed here during an Islamist assault on the U.S. consulate in September 2012.

Benghazi sits at the heart of an autonomy movement resisting central government authority and taking over eastern ports to choke off nearly half of the OPEC nation's oil shipments in a push for more independence.

But that lawlessness has not hindered the arrival of expensive outlets and a three-floor mall. Venice Street, as it is called by locals, was once a dull backstreet. A year ago, luxury retailers turned it into a buzzing commercial strip.

"People have more money than under Gaddafi so business is excellent," said Mohammed Lara, chief executive of a perfume retailer, which has two Benghazi shops and plans another.   Continued...

People walk past clothing shops at Venice Street in Benghazi November 7, 2013. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori