After days of being pounded by rocket fire and bombing runs from forces loyal to Qaddafi, Libya's rebel army piled into their pickup trucks yesterday afternoon and cut a ragged retreat from the oil town of Brega to Ajdabiya, 40 miles to the east. They left mounds of ammunition and supplies behind them as they fled, Qaddafi’s fighters surging behind.
That was all according to plan, says Mohammed el-Majbouli.
“We drew [Qaddafi's forces] forward, and then we maneuvered behind them and trapped them,” says Mr. Majbouli, a former member of Qaddafi’s special forces who is now organizing rebel fighters.
He says a reserve force of rebels with military training had been hidden in homes in the eastern third of the sprawling petrochemical complex at Brega. After the Qaddafi men passed at about 8 p.m. last night, the rebels came out, retaking the town as well as about 20 prisoners from Qaddafi’s forces.
Majbouli's claim of victory, which is also made by senior officers who have defected to the rebel cause, could not be independently confirmed. But if he is right, it would be the fourth time Brega has changed hands in less than two weeks, emphasizing the strange, shimmering nature of the conflict being fought in Libya’s coastal desert.
While it remains easy for Qaddafi to rain mortars and rockets on rebel checkpoints, he doesn’t appear to have more than a few thousand men, at most, committed to his eastward advance. Without indiscriminate fire on the cities of Ajdabiya or Benghazi – just the sort of act that might galvanize the international community into action, which Qaddafi is likely keen to avoid – it’s hard to see his forces advancing quickly much farther east.
Qaddafi threatens citizens via leaflet drop, text messages
In the Ajdabiya school turned rebel command center where Majbouli was speaking, a handful of Libyan men in combat fatigues were being held in a small room. A guard described them as pro-Qaddafi fighters.
The rebels refused to allow foreign reporters to move west from Ajdabiya today, saying they were worried that reporters would give their positions away to Tripoli. One said that Brega was “100 percent in our hands, but still dangerous.” Qaddafi’s military spokesman in Tripoli, meanwhile, claims the government holds Brega.
Ajdabiya is where the desert fighting, which has so far taken place along one main highway, would rapidly change. A network of decent roads runs east from there, and the city would be a major prize for Qaddafi.
But for now, Qaddafi appears to be using softer methods on the eastern population centers.
At least two air strikes hit the town today – one near a gas station, one in the middle of a deserted traffic circle on the western outskirts of town – but did little damage. The real campaign was psychological. A plane dropped propaganda leaflets on the city, which promised to soon “cleanse” Ajdabiya of the “criminals” running it, and urging citizens to turn on the rebellion.
“If they come, we know we’ll have to fight to the death,” says Salim Abdel Ali, an Ajdabiya native who fought on Qaddafi’s orders in Chad in 1988, and whose eldest son is now fighting with the rebels. “If they come here they’ll destroy our families, rape our wives. If my son has to die defending freedom, I can accept that.”
Residents of both Ajdabiya and Benghazi say they’ve been receiving text messages from Tripoli promising vicious reprisals for supporters of the rebellion.
Rebel generals met today to coordinate plans
Meanwhile, there are nascent signs of greater organization for the rebel forces. A conclave of generals who defected from Qaddafi’s army to the rebellion met in Ajdabiya today, planning the city’s defense and future options.
Among them were Gen. Daud el-Sobhi from Adjabiya and Gen. Suleiman Mahmoud from the far eastern city of Tobruk, who was one of the first senior officers to defect from Qaddafi. Gen. Mahmoud is said to have 3,000 troops under his command.
A spokesman for the transitional government in Benghazi says they’re organizing military units to harass and cut from behind Qaddafi’s supply lines if he tries to make a move further east.
The rebels' plans now depend on how many troops Qaddafi – who has to worry about protecting himself in Tripoli and bringing the unruly western towns of Misrata and Zawiyah to heel – can commit to fighting in the east.
Handi Hasnawi, a fighter just back from Brega this afternoon and who participated in the battle with Qaddafi’s forces last night, estimated they had about 25 civilian cars' worth of soldiers.