Libyan rebels send brigade to negotiate surrender of Sirte

After taking the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, Libyan rebels are trying to persuade Sirte residents to lay down their arms. The city, Qaddafi's hometown, is one of the regime's last holdouts.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
A rebel fighter reloads ammunition belts at Tripoli International Airport outside Friday. British warplanes struck a large bunker Friday in Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, his largest remaining stronghold, as NATO turned its attention to loyalist forces trying to hold back advancing Libyan rebels in the area.

As Libyan rebels fight for the last remaining pockets of Tripoli still in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists, their eastern comrades are negotiating for a handover of Sirte – Qaddafi's hometown and one of the last cities held by his supporters.

A brigade of rebel fighters originally from Sirte was sent to negotiate with tribal elders to persuade the town to lay down its arms and avoid a bloody battle.

“These are sons talking to their fathers,” says rebel fighter Bashir Budufira, leader of the Ajdabiyah Martyrs Brigade.

“I think 75 percent of the people there want a peaceful solution, but there are some people from Qaddafi’s tribe and they’re not going to surrender," he adds. "They have committed murder, so they’re afraid they’re going to be punished if they give up.”

If rebels manage a takeover of Sirte, it will cap an impressive advance westward from the eastern city of Benghazi that saw key victories in the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf.

The road leading west from Brega is full of holes from bombardments, and littered with burned out tanks, overturned cars, and discarded boxes that held rockets and ammunition, the signs of the rebels' push east.

Victory in Brega, Ras Lanuf

Rebel fighters who have just returned from the front lines describe how they finally dislodged Qaddafi’s forces from the strategic oil town of Brega after months of stalemate, the rebel advance impeded by the landmines laid by Qaddafi forces and a desire to protect oil infrastructure.

The rebels describe their surprise attack, and then a tactical retreat by Qaddafi’s forces. Over the span of several days, the soldiers loyal to the Libyan leader steadily pulled back toward the colonel’s hometown of Sirte, while bombarding the rebels with Grad rockets. The rebel fighters described finding uniforms abandoned in the streets of Ras Lanuf after they captured the town, and a civilian population suffering from food shortages and terrorized by Qaddafi’s soldiers.

Ras Lanuf citizens also told the rebels of infighting within Qaddafi’s troops, who were mostly soldiers from the feared Khamis Brigade led by one of his sons, but also included other military units and civilian volunteers. Some of the prisoners they captured said they had been forced to fight.

Rebel morale high

Rebel morale has soared in recent days as Qaddafi’s forces retreat further and further, even as the rebels sustained significant casualties from the rockets.

“Every day is better than the last,” says Mr. Budufira, as he takes a short rest from the front lines where his men were repairing their weapons in the town of Bishr, 15 miles west of Brega. He sat on an empty ammunition box under a tree as his men loaded Grad missiles into a truck-mounted launcher and others drove their pickup trucks toward the beach to test the heavy machine guns mounted in the beds.

His brigade is holding seven captured Qaddafi soldiers. He says his fighters would return them to their homes in the south.

“They’re forced to fight. Qaddafi threatens their families if they won’t fight,” he says. “They’re Libyan, not mercenaries, so we will let them go home.”

He then holds up two ID cards from Chad, which he says he took off the bodies of two mercenaries his forces had killed in battle. He described finding ID cards from Mali, Senegal, Nigeria,and Ghana as well.

'Qaddafi's forces don't have any purpose. But we do.'

Three fighters who had just returned from the front lines at Ras Lanuf on Wednesday said they expected the fight to be over soon. Wearing mismatched military fatigues, their beards long and faces haggard from months on the front lines, they said it would not be much longer until the fighting was over now that the stalemate at Brega had been broken.

“Qaddafi’s forces don’t have any purpose, any reason to fight. But we do,” says Walid El Menby Adam, to explain why the rebels had finally gained the upper hand. The same sentiment was repeated among many fighters near the front lines. Now they are making progress toward Sirte, he said.

“If they left it to us, Sirte wouldn’t last four days. But we don’t want to lose the blood of innocent people, so we have to think about a peaceful solution,” says Mr. Adam.

'90 percent of the people aren't worth the sacrifices we're making'

He and his friends received a hero’s welcome from citizens back in Benghazi. Did they resent that they were giving their all on the front lines while some were back in Benghazi living comfortably?

“The fighter without a supporter is nothing,” says his cousin Khalid Tayer Faraj Hussein. The three men said they would spend two days resting at home in the east, and then head back to the front lines for what they expected would be the final push. “We’re not tired of anything except losing men,” says Mr. Khalid.

But one fighter who asked not to be named, while driving back from the front lines and seeing people collecting ammunition boxes to sell as scrap, became angry.

“We’re at the front lines fighting and they’re here profiting, not contributing,” he says. “They’re not worth it. 90 percent of the people aren’t worth the sacrifices we’re making for them.”

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