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Libya's rebels struggle to retake territory, despite UN help

A key test of whether Libya's rebels will be able to make headway is Ajdabiya, a hotbed of anti-Qaddafi sentiment. So far, it's not looking promising for the rebels.

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“We love Sarkozy, we love Obama,” says a heavily bearded young man, lounging in the shade with his rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). “But where are they today?”

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Rebels on the outskirts of Ajdabiya say Qaddafi still has fighters at the east gate of town, and on Monday there were sharp clashes in the area. In the afternoon, two ambulances carrying dead fighters paused for the milling crowd to survey their martyrs before carrying them back to their families in the east.

To be sure, the rebel leadership in Benghazi and untrained fighters on the frontlines are confident that Qaddafi’s people will soon be pushed out of Ajdabiya, a city of about 100,000.

“His tanks outside the city have been destroyed, he’s lost his fuel trucks, his ammunition trucks,” says Abdel Moneim, a pharmacist turned fighter. “His people can’t hang on by themselves.”

A gun, four days of training, and he's off

But the experiences of men like Gaballa Bin Halumi, a young English teacher, illustrate just how untrained the rebels are.

Mr. Halumi became an unexpected revolutionary when someone begged him to help sack Qaddafi’s Benghazi barracks in mid-February.

A unit of Qaddafi’s soldiers were fleeing out of a breach in the compound wall made by a kamikaze attack from a man driving an explosives laden truck. As one soldier came by Halumi he said he was with the rebels but didn’t have civilian clothes and feared for his life. He pressed his AK-47 into Halumi’s hands and ran.

Halumi has since received four days of artillery training and now serves as a junior officer in the rag-tag rebel militia. He says he’s been given orders to prevent fighters from advancing too far forward.

The French jets saved us all – they did an amazing job,” he says, speaking of the weekend airstrikes. “But we’ve been told if we get forward, and mix in, there’s a good chance we all could be hit.”

Halumi was in the rebel advance west to the towns of Bin Jawwad, Ras Lanuf, and Brega almost two weeks ago, and was among the last of the rebels to make it out of Ras Lanuf alive when Qaddafi counterattacked, with mortars and rockets zeroing in on exposed rebel positions.

He says he was given four days of training with a group of 120 volunteers with members of the regular army who defected to the uprising in late February. He says of his original group, only 15 remain active. “Some were wounded, but most of them were killed at Ras Lanuf,” he says.

Rebels vow to be more methodical now

While Halumi acknowledges the scene around him at Zueitina is chaotic – there is no radio equipment, no evidence of orders being given or received among the hundreds of men milling at the crossroads – he says hard lessons were learned in the defeats at places like Ras Lanuf, and there will be no willy-nilly push forward again.

“At Ras Lanuf, at Brega, we’d won so much so fast, we were just believing in God and convinced there was no way we could be stopped,” he says. “Now we understand we need help, organization. We are going to be more methodical.”

But pressing forward is still uncertain. Sirte, Qaddafi’s major stronghold after Tripoli, lies west over 300 miles of lightly inhabited desert. “Keeping Sirte is his whole objective, the key to his survival. “God willing, we’ll be there soon.”

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