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.
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This reporter witnessed the rebel build-up for the April 28 recapture of the border post, with hodgepodge units gathering in towns along the east-west axis road, waiting – some with bayonets already fixed on their assault rifles – for the arrival of their comrades from other towns to join the fight.Skip to next paragraph
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And yet on another day, rebels at a position high on the edge of the escarpment overlooking pro-Qaddafi forces in the valley below had no communication equipment. They had to leave the post and drive a few miles to a checkpoint to report that a gathering of pro-Qaddafi vehicles was on the move toward the border.
Those signs aside, the rebels appear adept at using earth-moving equipment to shape the battle space to their advantage. They have started up a new radio station – Radio Free Nalut – to inform locals of the military situation, deliver public service announcements, and to convince towns with wavering loyalties to join the rebel side.
Where the rebels have positions for tanks they captured from pro-Qaddafi forces, they have made large rebel flag designs on the ground to alert NATO planes that they are “friendly” forces.
And a system is clearly in place to provide food and water to front-line rebel forces from the truckloads of supplies and donations that now pour across the border from Tunisia.
Besides the occasional tanker, the rebels send 10 vehicles a day across the border to Tunisia, each with a large 500-liter tank in the back of the truck, the seat behind the driver jammed with a dozen large plastic jerrycans.
“This is the only source of fuel,’ says Sifao Tentoush, a heavily bearded driver who proudly shows his rebel identity car while waiting to cross the border out of Libya. “The priority [for fuel usage] is for families [to evacuate], then for the rebels.”
Those who have worked with the rebels in the western mountains say such details set this group apart.
“I’ve been astonished by the organization and the will power,” says a rebel supporter in Nalut, called Akram. “There is a lack of good weapons. But everybody is fighting, from the old guy to the young man.”
What does it mean for Qaddafi's rule?
What that means strategically for Qaddafi and his nearly 42 years of rule in Tripoli is not clear. Libya’s vast spaces – these mountains form a partial belt separating the Sahara Desert to the south from Libya’s more hospital Mediterranean coastline to the north – mean that connecting this rebel enclave to the far larger rebel territories in the east would be extremely difficult.
The clear advantages rebels now hold across this rugged landscape – which is dominated by ethnic Berbers who have long chafed under Qaddafi’s rule – are not likely to extend beyond these mountains.
“Any battle in the open area, the casualties are too much, we can’t survive,” rebel Ali Shalbak told the Monitor last week from a high over-watch position, where every move by Qaddafi troops was clearly visible in the exposed valley below.
Still, the eastern flank of this mountain range is just 50 miles south of Tripoli, and with few of the obstacles that now block any rebel advance, such as Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
But for now keeping home turf in the mountains free of pro-Qaddafi forces is easier than expanding over the escarpment.
“If they were out in open ground they would be significantly out of their depth,” says the British security expert. “If they had aspirations to link up to, say Zawiyah [a restive city west of Tripoli], they would be on ground unknown to them. It would be a step too far; Qaddafi would hunt them down with his mechanized brigades.”