This morning, government forces moved into the coastal oil town of Brega, supported by fighter jets. Soon, fighting broke out between them and the town’s irregular militias and some soldiers who defected from Mr. Qaddafi’s military at the start of the uprising.
If Qaddafi could retake and hold Brega, it might reverse the uprising’s momentum and open up an easy route to push further into the east, wooing fence-sitters to his side and threatening Benghazi.
The young men and soldiers of Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the proclaimed capital of "liberated" eastern Libya, were determined not to let that happen, and rushed south.
Brega is located about 120 miles down the coast from Benghazi, and just 20 miles from the town of Ajdabiya, where MiG-23s dispatched by Qaddafi today and yesterday unsuccessfully tried to destroy a munitions dump.
By late afternoon, Qaddafi’s forces had been driven out, according to members of the transitional government in Benghazi and two Libyans on the ground reached by phone.
50 men, one misfiring gun
In Benghazi, the push on Brega and its oil-export terminal sent both regular forces who have defected to the “Free Libyan” side and thousands of the young men who led the uprising in its early days into a frenzy of activity.
At the April 7 Military Academy in Benghazi, which Qaddafi attended in the early 1960s and where he began laying the ground work for his 1969 coup, thousands of young men – many of whom had fought with rocks and Molotov cocktails to win this city two weeks ago – arrived to enroll in a citizen’s militia.
An organizer taking the names and phone numbers of the would-be soldiers said 5,000 signed up today, though there were no arms or equipment to be handed out. About three clusters of 50-or-so men gathered around one former soldier with either an AK-47 or a Fabrique Nationale (FN) rifle who demonstrated how the weapons work.
One instructor tried to fire his old FN into the air at the end of his demonstration. It misfired three times. Young men at the camp repeatedly said they’d like the US to send weapons or other material help.
“Most of us have nothing but stones,” says Saif Ali, a young man from Ajdabiya who came to Benghazi today looking for a rifle. “What we need are weapons and a no-fly zone.”
Armed pickups head south
Still, small groups of youths who had taken weapons from military depots during the uprising made their way south at least as far as Ajdabiya during the day, mostly in pickups with heavy machine guns mounted in the beds.
Most of the trucks had more men than weapons in them as they passed the last checkpoint on the way out of town to shouts of encouragement from the guards. Six ambulances, sirens blaring, also headed to Ajdabiya with doctors and nurses to set up a field hospital.
Better organized and equipped forces also said they were heading south.
An officer at the 21st Special Forces Battalion in town said troops would soon be dispatched south, though he didn’t know if they’d be holding at Benghazi or pressing for a fight. Graffiti to the left of the front gate quotes Omar Mukhtar, an anticolonial leader here hung by the Italians in 1931: “We win, or we die.”
At a tank base, soldiers were loading ammunition and supplies onto trucks and were readying five tanks and five tracked personnel carriers to roll to Adabiya on flatbeds. They were scheduled to leave this afternoon. This reporter didn’t see any regular military actually on the move, however.
15 'Free Libyan' forces dead in Brega
By the evening, the fight appeared to be over in Brega, at least for now. The atmosphere in Benghazi is increasingly tense though, with concerns that members of Qaddafi’s secret police are still active in the city and gathering intelligence.
A Libyan from Brega who fought with irregular forces near the oil terminal there today says his group had 14 wounded, and four killed, before the Qaddafi loyalists were pushed into the nearby university campus. About 15 of the “Free Libyan” forces, as they’re calling themselves, died. The casualties on the government side are unclear.
Fighters in Brega and spokesman for the transitional government in Benghazi first said the Qaddafi fighters were “surrounded” at the university, but later the fighter in Brega said they had been allowed to retreat west, presumably headed toward Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown and his second major stronghold after Tripoli.
Qaddafi still blaming Al Qaeda, denying protests
In a rambling address on state television today, Qaddafi continued to deny the fact that he’s lost most of the eastern third of the country, home to the bulk of Libya’s oil fields.
He insisted the fighting against his regime has been led and organized by Al Qaeda, despite the fact that it’s a broad popular revolt calling for democracy and basic freedoms, and said there have been “no protests whatsoever in the east.”
At a protest in Benghazi today, a few thousand Libyans gathered to cheer as hundreds of copies of Qaddafi’s “Green Book,” a text he wrote and insists is the law of the land, were fed into a bonfire. One man laughs when asked if the crowd of men and women are working for “Al Qaeda.”
“Look around you,” he says, pointing to the printed Arabic and English signs carried by many of the demonstrators.
They indeed have a list of demands that wouldn’t please Osama bin Laden if he saw them. “Yes for freedom of the press,” “Yes for the rule of law,” “Yes for the division of powers,” and “No to extremism,” they read.