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Rare view from Libya's western mountains shows rebel gains against Qaddafi

The picture emerging from this rugged terrain along Libya's southern border with Tunisia is that of a heavily outgunned rebel militia winning unlikely victories over Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

By Staff writer / April 26, 2011

Antigovernment rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi sight army positions in the valley below as they consolidate military gains at the western end of the Nafusa mountain range April 25, near Nalut, Libya. Rebel forces have in recent days captured the nearby Tunisia-Libya border post of Dehiba, opening a direct supply line that reinforces the largely Berber area that has long opposed Ghaddafi's rule.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Nalut, Western Libya

Evidence of the ferocity of the fighting in Libya’s western mountains was clear Monday at the Nalut central hospital. One young rebel lay dead under a shroud; nobody yet knew his name. Some were too badly injured to talk. One said a battle that day – in which loyalist troops were forced to retreat six miles with heavy losses – was a “big victory.”

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“It is the heart that is fighting,” said the fighter as he lay in a hospital bed. He refused to be pictured wearing an oxygen mask “because they will say Qaddafi is winning.”

Few journalists have so far crossed into these western mountains, but the picture now emerging is that of a heavily outgunned militia – perhaps better organized than the rag-tag rebels in the east – that has leveraged local knowledge, international support, and deep-seated anger at Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi into unlikely victories.

This rugged terrain has witnessed a hidden war in the fight against Colonel Qaddafi. Rebel forces here – many of them ethnic Berbers native to the tough terrain – recently took control of a border crossing with Tunisia, opening a critical new supply line for the embattled opposition, and have gained enough ground in recent days to mark an important waypoint in Libya’s revolution.

Several NATO airstrikes Monday – the first after more than two months of fighting in this region – have boosted rebel confidence that this front will no longer be neglected. Rebels say that Arab and Berber tribes and towns along the 90-mile belt of the high sandstone Nafusah Mountain, which stretches from Tunisia to south of Tripoli, are now largely united in their opposition to Qaddafi, despite efforts by Tripoli to play one against the other.

“Our forces are not well experienced, they are learning as they go and we are seeking help from God to finish [Qaddafi],” says Mohammed Ahmed al-Khameisi, head of the Nalut local council of elders. “We are going to beat his troops one by one, as we did from [the border] to Nalut. We are still moving forward.”

'They are killing our brothers and sisters!'

The rebels at the hospital Monday had all fought in a battle six miles east of Nalut that pitted the Libyan government's rockets, 106-mm cannons, and anti-aircraft guns against rifle-bearing rebels using RPGs and anti-aircraft weapons captured in past battles. The rebels' win meant a new haul of weaponry, and spirits were high.

But as five badly wounded and bloodied government soldiers were rushed into the emergency room, rebel guards outside the hospital protested noisily that their enemies would be given care. “They are killing our brothers and sisters!” said one volunteer, as hospital staff tried to calm him. “We don’t have to treat them; they can just die.”

One male nurse with a blood-spattered gown explained: “We help all the patients because we are Muslim.”

Town elders said the treatment of the wounded captives showed a humane approach that was not mirrored by Qaddafi loyalists, whose units they say have poisoned wells with diesel and oil and gunned down flocks of sheep to wreck livelihoods in villages under their control.

Collaborating with NATO

Getting outside help has not been easy, on a war front that has been dominated – in both news headlines and spent ordnance – by the continuing battles in eastern Libya and the besieged rebel enclave of Misurata.

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