Libyan rebels race to Ras Lanuf, then beat a hasty retreat
Journalist Gert Van Langendonck explores the history of Ras Lanuf, the front line in Libya's war now – and in ancient times.
Ras Lanuf, Libya
(This article was edited after posting. Though Gert was flattered to be Dutch for a few hours, he is in fact from Belgium. -ed.)Skip to next paragraph
The Arab League observer mission in Syria is likely to fail
Egypt's military rulers crack down on democracy groups
Iran's threats over Strait of Hormuz? Understandable, but not easy
Eastern Libya poll indicates political Islam will closely follow democracy
Iraq's Maliki threatens, Sunnis grumble, and Baghdad goes boom
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Reports that Libyan rebels "took" Sirte, Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown, spread quickly through the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi early Monday morning, prompting celebratory gunfire from rebels there.
A couple of hours later, many of the foreign journalists in Benghazi, grumpy from a lack of sleep, packed up their belongings with the firm conviction that Sirte would be their next headquarters to cover the rebel advance. In the elevator at the Uzu Hotel, an outfit providing satellite uplinks for TV stations put up a confident notice: “Feedpoint has moved to Sirte.”
But Benghazi’s hospitality industry needn’t have worried: By nightfall most of the city’s hotels were full of foreign journalists once again. It seems the Libyan rebels – not for the first time – had taken their wishes for reality.
It wasn’t altogether a surprise. After NATO airstrikes cleared the way for the rebel conquest of the key strategic town of Ajdabiya, the rebel offensive seemed unstoppable: Brega, Uqayla, and Ras Lanuf all fell into rebel hands with little to no resistance from Qaddafi’s troops.
But Brega is an oil terminal with a compound for foreign workers, Uqayla is little more than a hamlet, and Ras Lanuf is an oil refinery with a hotel attached to it.
It seems Qaddafi’s soldiers simply abandoned these towns only to stop the rebel offensive halfway between Ras Lanuf and Sirte – a real city.
On Tuesday, the new front line was once again just north of Ras Lanuf, a town that has already been taken twice by the rebels, and is now in danger of being lost to Qaddafi's forces once more.
Despite its small size, Ras Lanuf oozes history. It was here, in the 4th century BC, that the border between West and East Libya – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – was drawn – or at least that's the story told by Roman historians.
At the time, settling borders was more sportive.
The Greeks at Cyrene, near modern-day Bayda (about 100 miles east of the rebel capital, Benghazi), and the Phoenicians at Carthage, near modern-day Tunis, agreed to have two teams of two runners start out in opposite directions on the same day. The place where they met was to be the new border.
When the two teams met at Ras Lanuf the Greeks, who apparently had a late start, immediately accused the Phoenicians of cheating. The Phoenician runners, the Philaeni brothers, were offered a choice: Admit they’d cheated, or be buried alive. They chose the latter.
The two Libyas remained separate entities until they were united in Italian Libya in 1934. At the time, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had an arch built at Ras Lanuf featuring statues of the Philaeni brothers.
When Qaddafi came to power he ordered the arch demolished, because he saw it as a threat to the national Libyan unity he was seeking to promote. The statues are now kept at Medinat Sultan, close to where Qaddafi and rebel troops were facing off on Monday.