Qaddafi strikes back at Libya rebels' western advance

Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi pushed back Sunday against a rebel advance toward Mr. Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte from Libya's 'liberated' east.

Hussein Malla/AP
Rebels walk forward as smoke raises from mortar and tank shelling during a fight against pro-Qaddafi fighters near the town of Bin-Jawad, eastern Libya, Sunday. Libyan helicopter gunships fired on a rebel force advancing west toward the capital along the Mediterranean coastline Sunday and forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi fought intense ground battles with the rival fighters.

Yesterday, militiamen in Libya's "liberated" east were flush with easy victory. They’d taken the key oil terminal at Ras Lanuf after sharp fighting on Friday. And on Saturday they rolled further west into the coastal town of Bin Jawad with hardly a shot being fired.

This morning, they were vowing to press west to Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, his last stronghold on the Libyan coast before the capital, Tripoli.

But then a hard reality set in.

The Libyan civilians-turned-militiamen – a growing number of whom are referring to themselves as mujahideen or "holy warriors" – didn’t consolidate their position in Bin Jawad overnight. Some rushed forward, others returned to Ras Lanuf to sleep, leaving nothing like an organized occupation force in Bin Jawad.

At mid-morning today came the counterattack, with pro-Qaddafi militiamen moving in behind air strikes on the road west of town from fighter jets. Rebel positions were also shelled.

Meanwhile, an air strike this morning targeted rebel positions in Ras Lanuf, about 20 miles west of Bin Jawad. Qaddafi has focused most of his bombing efforts on weapons dumps in recent days, seeking to deny the rebels access to more arms, but these bombs – which landed harmlessly in the desert – appeared to be aimed at the rebels themselves.

Qaddafi's forces also reportedly used artillery and tanks in the rebel-held town of Misrata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, in what appears to be Qaddafi's most serious attempt to retake the town since rebels took it over more than a week ago. Misrata remains the biggest population center under rebel control outside Libya's "liberated" east.

War could drag on

The longer the war drags on, the greater the chances that Qaddafi, who seized control of Libya in a 1969 coup, will survive.

State television has been filled with propaganda – claiming overnight that Ras Lanuf has been retaken by his forces, a patent lie. State TV also claimed the western city of Zawiya, close to Tripoli, and the far eastern town of Tobruk, had fallen to Qaddafi’s forces. Rebels in both locations dismissed the claim.

While Bin Jawad is of little strategic relevance, Ras Lanuf is something else again. It has a full-sized air strip and a major petrochemical complex. But for the moment it is firmly in opposition hands.

Fighters returning from Bin Jawad said some residents of the town came out of their homes firing at the rebels, speculating that they were afraid to fail to support Qaddafi’s regime.

“A lot of these people will be for Qaddafi if he’s there, and with us if we’re there,” says Abdul Jalil, a rebel militiaman from Benghazi, speaking a few kilometers west of Bin Jawad on Sunday. “A lot of our brothers are still afraid of him.”

Depth of support for Qaddafi a key question

The extent and depth of Qaddafi’s support now appears to be a key component in determining on how long Libya’s low-intensity civil war will last. Most of his air strikes have fallen harmlessly, raising question about the commitment of his pilots to carrying out his orders.

Still, Libya has lived in fear of Qaddafi for 41 years. He has used torture and public executions against his political opponents, and many Libyans fear that's what will happen to them if they support an uprising that fails.

In Bin Jawad on Saturday, local residents spoke uneasily to reporters, saying there’d been no sign of either Qaddafi forces or the rebels until that morning. Only a few joined in with the rebels as they trampled Qaddafi posters and shouted “God is great.”

While the United Nations says 1,000 Libyans have died so far in the uprising, it’s surprising that more haven’t been killed in the past few days on the rebel’s western front.

In the late afternoon, the hospital in Ras Lanuf said they'd received 32 wounded rebel fighters and two dead. The casualties on the Qaddafi side were taken west to Sirte, so their losses are unclear. Among the wounded was a reporter for France 24, a TV station, though his condition wasn’t serious and he soon left hospital.

There were no confirmed dead, though rebel fighters massing at the town’s crossroads said they heard a rebel truck had been ambushed west of Bin Jawad and that dead had been left behind.

If that’s true, it would mark something of a turning point. The fighting so far has been oddly restrained, raising questions about how willing either side is to engage in battles that could leave scores of their fellow Libyans dead.

The rebel convoys of school buses, pickup trucks, and Chevy sedans, would seem easy pickings for landmines or ambushes by gunmen concealed in the rocky desert along the only road that links Libya’s coastal towns, but no such attack had happened so far.

Confusion on the front lines

Throughout the day, confusion reigned among the militiamen at Ras Lanuf. Again and again, pickups with ammunition and heavy machine guns raced towards Bin Jawad, only to stop before reaching their destinations out of fear of air strikes or shouted advice from retreating rebel convoys to pull back.

There was constant fear of air strikes. When a high flying jet was spotted, three anti-aircraft guns opened up fruitlessly as it sped west. Yesterday, rebel anti-aircraft guns brought down a pro-Qaddafi MIG in the desert outside Ras Lanuf.

Interim leadership names steering committee

Back in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and a temporary capital for the rebellion, the interim political leadership named a three-man steering committee last night to represent them.

Omar Hariri, a confederate in Qaddafi’s coup who broke with him and led a failed coup of his own in 1975, and two other men were named to head the local government.

Mohammed Abdul-Rahman Shalgham, the Libyan UN ambassador who defected from the Qaddafi regime in mid-February, was named to speak for the group at the UN, an indication that they may seek to seek international recognition for their provisional government if the war continues.

But even as they show signs of reaching out to the international community, distrust of foreign intervention is clearly evident among the rebellion. The Sunday Times of London reports that about 8 members of Britain’s special forces were detained in Benghazi, as they apparently helped lead a diplomatic mission to reach out to rebels.

Sources in the provisional government in Benghazi say the British nationals are unharmed and being well-treated.

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