Libya rebels push west again, but Sirte awaits
In the past 24 hours, Libya’s rebels have made stunning territorial gains. But Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte won't be so easy to take.
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They are now hunted by an unseen enemy that they have no reply for, much as the rebels were a little over a week ago. Between Ajdabiya and Sirte are 300 miles of desert, oil installations and hamlets that afford Qaddafi’s forces – reliant as they are on resupply from outside – few places to hide.Skip to next paragraph
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That Qaddafi's push against the rebels crumbled so quickly after it beat the rebels back so rapidly just weeks ago is not so surprising. In fact, it mirrors in a much smaller and faster way the vicious North African campaign of WWII. In late 1940, it took British forces about two months to push the Italians back from the Egyptian border to Ugaila, a town between Brega and Ras Lanuf that the rebels reclaimed this morning.
After Erwin Rommel and his Africa Korps landed at Tripoli in February 1941, they fought a two month offensive that pushed the British and Commonweatlh forces almost all the way back to the Egyptian border, where they were besieged at Tobruk. The British forces held out at Tobruk for 8 months, and when the siege was broken, it took just two months for Rommel to lose all that territory again.
Today, Sirte is Qaddafi’s key stronghold. The rebels have learned hard lessons in the past month, and their leaders say heedless advances into rocket and missile fire that killed so many of them in early March won’t be repeated.
They’ve won fresh ammunition from the stockpiles Qaddafi’s forces abandoned at the roadsides, and whatever the size of the rebellious elements in Sirte, they will certainly have taken heart from the past two days events.
Around Misrata, the last western town still in open rebellion against Qaddafi, French warplanes destroyed five government fighter jets and two helicopters yesterday.
An Al Jazeera reporter who somehow made his way into the city today reports that the siege of that town has left hundreds of civilians dead and hardened locals’ fury at Qadafi’s regime.
But now the question is how committed Qaddafi’s loyalists remain. The international air power that’s been used with such great effect will be politically much harder to employ in Sirte, since attacks on the town itself run the risk of civilian casualties.
The rebel army’s hope now lies in Qaddafi’s commanders and rank and file seeking to cut deals in the face of his stunning loss of territory in the past two days, and whether the citizens of cowed cities like Tripoli and Zawiya, ruthlessly suppressed by his forces so far, will try to rise again.