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Libya's western rebels run tighter operation than eastern brethren

In the remote mountains of western Libya, the rebels have moved beyond the 'rag-tag' militia label often used to characterize the opposition in the east.

By Staff writer / May 6, 2011

Antigovernment rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi look north at enemy positions over the escarpment as they consolidate military gains at the western end of the Nafusa mountain range near Nalut, Libya, on April 27.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Zintan and Nalut, Libya

The signs of sharp rebel organization are everywhere in Libya’s remote western mountains, contrasting with the rag-tag nature of their rebel brethren who control eastern Libya.

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This group of isolated anti-Qaddafi rebels appears to have learned from early mistakes, fine-tuning everything from fueling procedures to battle tactics.

Battlewagons smeared with sand for camouflage need a fuel chit from the local “military council” to collect gas. Defenses designed to thwart troops loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi are multilayered and include well-placed antitank ditches, earthen barriers, and preplaced trailers to block roads.

Food, water, and fuel supplies enter from a critical border crossing with Tunisia captured by the rebels on April 21. The medical infrastructure is so well honed that critical battlefield casualties are often whisked to Tunisia – sometimes along smuggler routes.

The rebels who control this 90-mile Nafusah Mountain range also have new Inmarsat satellite telephone handsets, widely believed to have been supplied by Qatar, as well as some new body armor.

Unlike the rebels in the east, those in these mountains are rarely seen to fire their weapons in the air in celebration; commanders have pointed out that every round fired in the sky is one that can't target a pro-Qaddafi soldier.

Vulnerabilities on the battlefield

Video footage of one battle last week showed rebels engaged in a multipronged strike in which they captured a village, killed several Qaddafi loyalists, and suffered few losses.

Then on the afternoon of April 28, in broad daylight, pro-Qaddafi forces rumbled up an unguarded mountain road, caught the rebels unawares, and recaptured the border post from behind.

It was a short-lived victory: Qaddafi’s forces were soon cut off and forced to flee into Tunisia, shooting as they went. They left behind three dead.

The assault was a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities – and sometimes over-confidence – of this fledgling rebel force. But it also showed how quickly they can muster to fight across this band of rebel-held territory, which stretches from the Tunisian border to south of Tripoli.

“They have competence gained through incompetence, and have made corrections,” says a British security expert who has traveled in rebel sectors in recent days.

“There is clearly a structure that may not be a normal military structure, but is a paramilitary one that is effective,” says the former British soldier. “On the downside, some command decisions are by consensus, and there is not a true command structure.”

Six days traveling with the rebels

Indeed, six days of traveling in rebel territory exposed the strength and weaknesses of the rebel effort here. Pro-Qaddafi forces regularly shell rebel-held towns like Nalut, 20 miles from the Tunisia border, and Zintan, 75 miles further east.

On Thursday NATO destroyed at least two helicopters that were being transported by pro-Qaddafi forces toward Zintan to step up the assault there.

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