Welcome to the Libyan front. Have a juice box.
On the front lines of the struggle to remove Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, the Monitor's reporter describes sermons, battles, and a rag-tag militia desperate to press forward.
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I missed a press exodus from the hotel, but it didn’t matter. An American TV crew soon returned and let me spend the morning with them touring checkpoints. By mid-afternoon, most of the reporters were back at Ras Lanuf, mirroring the rebels' frequent races up and down the sole road linking the coastal towns.Skip to next paragraph
Gunfire as a sort of posturing – from RPGs, antiaircraft guns, and assault rifles – is frequent at rebel checkpoints, but neither side has engaged in a really pitched battle so far, preferring raid-like engagements and then withdrawals.
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On Saturday, for example, I hopped a ride in an empty minivan outside Ras Lanuf, whose driver insisted they were pressing “as far forward as we can. We’ll have breakfast in Tripoli,” he said, grinning. But a few miles west of Ras Lanuf, a driver headed the other way shouted that a fighter jet had been spotted.
My driver immediately did a U-turn and I had to grab his shoulder and shout to get him to slow down long enough to allow me off at the Ras Lanuf checkpoint before he sped back east toward safety.
Minitanks in the breakdown lane
While there are conflicting reports about the movements of both Qaddafi's forces and special forces who have defected to the side of the rebels, Ras Lanuf is definitely being reinforced.
As the morning wore on Monday, the militiamen began to trickle back in from the east. Finally around noon, two armored personnel carriers (APCs) – minitanks, really – began rolling toward Ras Lanuf.
Local militiamen took the move forward of the APCs as a sign that lost momentum would soon be regained.
One of the APCs soon stopped by the side of the road. Pickup trucks full of excited, chanting men surrounded it along with a few TV crews. One of the men, wearing a Russian tank helmet, chased down a donkey grazing nearby and rode it, slapping its neck to get it to turn and calling it “Qaddafi.”
After about 15 minutes, the APC crew surged forward again. My traveling companions and I followed it back west a few minutes later and soon passed it, apparently broken down along the side of the road.
No fuel at the front
Another key problem that could sideline the rebels is the short supply of fuel in Ras Lanuf, despite the presence of a massive refinery.
Yesterday, I was with a group of rebels – stringing heavy-caliber ammunition into belts and carrying boxes of RPGs and grenades – when they pulled down the fence around a fuel depot that American engineers were working at just a few weeks ago. The rebels were trying to fuel their truck.
Most rebels dash back east about 30 miles to Al Uqaylah to refuel, raising questions about why fuel tankers haven’t been arranged at the front. If the APCs, or some of the Russian-built tanks the rebels control, really get involved, fuel will be desperately needed.
From a truck, sheikh with a loudspeaker rallies the crowds
More evidence of a lack of direction was evident in Ras Lanuf on Sunday. Another jet had been spotted (a Libyan government MiG was reportedly shot down not far from here on Saturday) and a furious argument broke out between a religious sheikh with a loudspeaker mounted on a truck, urging the young men to head forward, and another man urging everyone to pull back to Brega and consolidate.