How far – and how fast – will Qaddafi's forces push into Libya's 'liberated' east?

Today, Muammar Qaddafi’s forces induced a panicked rebel retreat from Brega, peppering the town – home to one Libya’s largest petrochemical complexes – with rocket and mortar fire.

Ben Curtis/AP
Pro-Qaddafi fighters raise their weapons as they are pictured during a government-organized visit for foreign media in Bin Jawwad, Libya, Saturday. Pro-Qaddafi fighters like these have been pushing rebels further back everyday. How far east will they get?

Benghazi, the de facto capital of Libya’s rebellion, has become a city where fear-driven rumors are rapidly replacing the heady optimism of just one week ago, when the disorganized rebel militia held two of eastern Libya’s key oil installations and were vowing to march on Tripoli.

Today, Muammar Qaddafi’s forces induced a panicked rebel retreat from Brega, peppering the town – home to one Libya’s largest petrochemical complexes – with rocket and mortar fire.

It’s been the government’s pattern in recent days: Massive amounts of indirect fire from a distance, with the regime’s forces moving forward once most of the rebels withdraw. The same tactic was used last week as Qaddafi’s forces retook the town of Ras Lanuf, home to Libya’s second-largest oil export terminal

The disorganized rebel militia, still with no organized leadership and obvious involvement from the military units who have defected to the rebel side, rarely gets close enough to even see their enemy, Without the heavy weapons and training needed to return the indirect fire that is relentlessly driving them back, Qaddafi’s forces are essentially shooting ducks in a barrel.

Around the crossroads with the main coastal highway and Brega’s petrochemical complex, where rebels were massed yesterday afternoon, homes and shops were left smoldering by the government troops' fire. Last week, Qaddafi hit his own oil facilities at Ras Lanuf

Full casualties are as yet unknown, but an ambulance driver in the area said at least one car with a family seeking to flee Brega was caught in the barrage, killing a husband and wife and their two children.

How far east will Qaddafi's forces push?

Now, the road lies open to Ajdabiya, a large town 40 miles from Brega, and from there it’s just 100 miles to Benghazi. Along the road linking these towns and cities are the same militiamen – scattered, confused, and outgunned – who have been routed consistently with few loses to Qaddafi’s forces in recent days.

With momentum on his side, Qaddafi and his loyalists are also stepping up a propaganda campaign against the rebels, seeking to encourage fence-sitting Libyans to side with what they’re portraying as a winning team, and promising death for those who don’t.

Earlier this week Saif Islam, one of Qaddafi's son, claimed at a rally that he receives “hundreds of calls from the east” every day begging for Qaddafi’s troops to “save us” and warned of dire consequences for those who continue to oppose his father.

Calls of another sort have have been coming in to democracy activists’ cell phones here in Benghazi.

Threatening phone calls

A few nights ago, one of a group of men watching Al Jazeera in a Benghazi hotel lobby received a call from an unknown number. The man on the other end of the line claimed to be from the 32nd Brigade, a ruthless and well-equipped unit that acts as a praetorian guard for Qaddafi and is led by another of his sons, Khamis.

The call was put on speaker as a calm and chilling voice, frequently chuckling, called the Libyans fighting Qaddafi dogs, cowards, and mutineers, among the printable insults. When told that Qaddafi was killing dozens of Libyans in the area every day, the man told the crowd they were liars.

As the crowd grew more agitated, shouting their own insults back, he promised. “We’re going to kill all of you. I’m going to come and do it myself, and I’m going to enjoy it. Real Libyans will have no mercy for you.”

“That man was talking to us like we’re animals,” says Ahmed Sanalla, a young activist in Benghazi. “If we don’t beat them, the reprisals against us will be massive.

The government threats aren’t necessarily idle ones. Qaddafi has jailed and tortured thousands of his political opponents during his time in power. In the 1970s and 1980s, public executions were sometimes held and shown on national TV.

Denying aid

Meanwhile, aid workers say Qaddafi’s government is denying medical access to the western towns of Zawiyah and Misrata, which have been subjected to tank and mortar fire in recent days as punishment for rising up with the rebellion.

Doctors Without Borders said in a press release yesterday that in those two towns “large numbers of people are cut off from any medical assistance, amidst reports of … shortages of medicines and other medical materials.”

“We are deeply concerned with the denial of access to medical care and the plight of patients in public health facilities within government-controlled areas,” said Bruno Jochum, the group’s operations director.

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