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.
Zintan and Nalut, 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.
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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