Libyan rebels race to Ras Lanuf, then beat a hasty retreat

Journalist Gert Van Langendonck explores the history of Ras Lanuf, the front line in Libya's war now – and in ancient times.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Libyan rebels jubilate on a checkpoint in Al-Egila, east of Ras Lanuf, eastern Libya, on March 27.

(This article was edited after posting. Though Gert was flattered to be Dutch for a few hours, he is in fact from Belgium. -ed.)

Reports that Libyan rebels "took" Sirte, Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown, spread quickly through the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi early Monday morning, prompting celebratory gunfire from rebels there.

A couple of hours later, many of the foreign journalists in Benghazi, grumpy from a lack of sleep, packed up their belongings with the firm conviction that Sirte would be their next headquarters to cover the rebel advance. In the elevator at the Uzu Hotel, an outfit providing satellite uplinks for TV stations put up a confident notice: “Feedpoint has moved to Sirte.”

But Benghazi’s hospitality industry needn’t have worried: By nightfall most of the city’s hotels were full of foreign journalists once again. It seems the Libyan rebels – not for the first time – had taken their wishes for reality.

RELATED: Libya timeline (updated daily)

It wasn’t altogether a surprise. After NATO airstrikes cleared the way for the rebel conquest of the key strategic town of Ajdabiya, the rebel offensive seemed unstoppable: Brega, Uqayla, and Ras Lanuf all fell into rebel hands with little to no resistance from Qaddafi’s troops.

But Brega is an oil terminal with a compound for foreign workers, Uqayla is little more than a hamlet, and Ras Lanuf is an oil refinery with a hotel attached to it.

It seems Qaddafi’s soldiers simply abandoned these towns only to stop the rebel offensive halfway between Ras Lanuf and Sirte – a real city.

On Tuesday, the new front line was once again just north of Ras Lanuf, a town that has already been taken twice by the rebels, and is now in danger of being lost to Qaddafi's forces once more.

Historic race

Despite its small size, Ras Lanuf oozes history. It was here, in the 4th century BC, that the border between West and East Libya – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – was drawn – or at least that's the story told by Roman historians.

At the time, settling borders was more sportive.

The Greeks at Cyrene, near modern-day Bayda (about 100 miles east of the rebel capital, Benghazi), and the Phoenicians at Carthage, near modern-day Tunis, agreed to have two teams of two runners start out in opposite directions on the same day. The place where they met was to be the new border.

When the two teams met at Ras Lanuf the Greeks, who apparently had a late start, immediately accused the Phoenicians of cheating. The Phoenician runners, the Philaeni brothers, were offered a choice: Admit they’d cheated, or be buried alive. They chose the latter.

The two Libyas remained separate entities until they were united in Italian Libya in 1934. At the time, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had an arch built at Ras Lanuf featuring statues of the Philaeni brothers.

When Qaddafi came to power he ordered the arch demolished, because he saw it as a threat to the national Libyan unity he was seeking to promote. The statues are now kept at Medinat Sultan, close to where Qaddafi and rebel troops were facing off on Monday.

Air support

Absent the continued use of air power to help the rebels advance – there is hardly a civilian population to protect between Ajdabiya and Sirte – Ras Lanuf could once again become the de facto border between two Libyas: one ruled by Qaddafi, the other by the rebel council, which so far has been recognized only by France and Qatar.

Now, the rebel army is facing the same problem that Qaddafi’s army had when it was fighting in Ajdabiya: long supply lines. The front line is now a five-hour drive from Benghazi and the Sirtica, the dry region between Ajdabya and Sirte, hardly supports a population. Before the Italians built the coastal road in the 1930s the Sirtica was a near insurmountable natural barrier between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

This time around gasoline is the main problem faced by the rebels. There is plenty of it, and it’s free, but because there is no electricity at the gas stations, getting a full tank of gas means waiting for the local kids to bring it up from the reservoir using small water bottles attached to long wooden sticks. It’s a long and tedious process for the rebel soldiers trying to get to the front line.

For the moment, Ras Lanuf looks set to become the rebel army’s new logistical base, and a very strange place it is.

RELATED: Libya timeline (updated daily)

Local hospitality

Its main feature, apart from the oil refinery, is the El Fadeel hotel. A pretty nice hotel on the Mediterranean shore, it has taken a severe beating after being conquered by the rebel army twice and occupied by Qaddafi’s front-line soldiers at least once.

The latter left a going-away present in the form of pro-Qaddafi slogans on the mirrors in many of the hotel rooms. The red paint, suggesting lipstick, was still wet on Monday evening.

The hotel’s latest inhabitants are a motley crew. They are not the overly friendly and accommodating rebel soldiers that foreign journalists have grown used to over the past month.

One journalist had his bulletproof vest stolen within minutes of arriving. Another had his money and passport stolen while he was setting up a satellite link on the hotel roof.

As young men with guns loitered in the hotel’s dark corridors, foreign journalists set up camp and barricaded their doors as best they could.

But as sunset cast a soft light over the hotel beach, the Libyan drivers who accompanied the journalists grew more and more uncomfortable.

“I don’t see any rebels here; I see only criminals,” said one Libyan driver, who was part of the first rebel drive into Ras Lanuf.

As a drivers’ revolt brewed, several hundred "real" rebel soldiers piled into Ras Lanuf in trucks, pick-up trucks and regular cars after what journalists at the spot called a panicked retreat from the west in the face of heavy artillery from Qaddafi troops.

On Monday, one group of French journalists who'd roared past Bin Jawwad and got within 30 miles of Sirte had to abandon their car when they came under RPG attack, losing all their gear in the process.

In the traffic mess created by the retreat, some rebels didn’t hesitate to fire off heavy artillery pieces into the air to get others to move faster.

As the rebels prepared to spend the night huddled around camp fires in the desert, most of the foreign journalists had come to the conclusion that the scene at the Al Fadeel was a bit too colorful for safety. By midnight, the last of them had left for safer ground.

On Tuesday, Qaddafi’s troops were once again close enough to Ras Lanuf to shell the rebels in town.

There was no celebratory fire in Benghazi on Tuesday morning.

--- Gert Van Langendonck is the North Africa Correspondent for NRC Handelsblad, a leading Dutch newspaper.

Qaddafi: A look back

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