Libyan rebels celebrate victory in Ajdabiya
They acknowledge that Western airstrikes on Libya were crucial to turning the tide in the eastern city. But even with such support, how far they can advance toward Tripoli is uncertain.
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“I expect in the coming days we’ll find out whole families are missing,” says Dr. Kareem. “A lot of injured were afraid to come here because they thought they might get arrested.”Skip to next paragraph
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'Mercenaries' rounded up
A few blocks away is evidence that war, particularly in Qaddafi’s Libya, creates victims in many different ways. A group of militiamen in an SUV pulls up alongside a car with foreigners in it. “Follow us,” the driver shouts. “We’ve got captives.”
A few minutes later, in the yard of a local home, three of Qaddafi’s infamous “mercenaries” are produced. Two are black men from Chad, one barefoot, the third a Libyan man in his late 50s with rheumy eyes, an unkempt grey beard, and plastic sandals. All are terrified.
All say they were rounded up in Tripoli and sent to the front without training. One of the men from Chad says he was promised a home and a car. The other simply says he worked as a doorman. They dropped their rifles when the airstrikes started, and tried to escape on foot, before the rebels caught them today.
Though there’s been much discussion of Qaddafi’s use of “foreign mercenaries” in the conflict, a lot of the fighters he’s using appear to be poor and unemployed migrants who found themselves in Libya when the uprising began.
In Benghazi, a member of the rebel government says other so-called mercenaries who’ve been caught claim they were offered a little money to simply join in pro-Qaddafi demonstrations, having no idea they were being shipped off to war.
'Qaddafi even worse than Italian [colonists]'
About five miles south in the desert, seven extended families have been camped out for weeks, and are delighted to hear that it’s now safe to go home. “There were bombs falling on us, from the sea, from the air,” says Akram Sheiki. “We had to get out with the children.”
In a long tent, the men in the camp gather to shout “God is great,” share news, and talk about how long Qaddafi can hang on. Mr. Sheiki’s uncle Ali Said, with a perfectly trimmed white beard, can hardly conceal his glee at Qaddafi’s defeat.
His only son died in a massacre of 1,200 Islamist inmates at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996.
After praising the international action – particularly French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s emerging as a local folk hero here with babies named after him and his name chanted at rebel celebrations – he launches into a lengthy poem comparing the struggle against Qaddafi to the jihad against Italian colonialism here in the 1920s.
“Qaddafi is even worse than the Italians,” says Mr. Said. “He’s a Muslim and a Libyan, and he treats us even worse than he did.”
The battles ahead
Now this key crossroads, with highways leading to oilfields in the south and the coastal population centers of the eastern coast, is firmly back in rebel hands. This afternoon, rebels had pushed west to the approaches of Brega, an oil and gas depot that Qaddafi successfully seized in early March.
But they remain lightly armed and poorly trained – though the vast stockpiles of ammunition Qaddafi’s forces left behind will certainly help. Rebels have reportedly already retaken Brega, the next main town on the road west. Reclaiming the oil terminal at Ras Lanuf also seems possible.
But a march on Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown and a key to the west much as Ajdabiya is a key to the east, remains a very difficult task for the emerging rebel army.