Ecstatic rebels and residents of Ajdabiya, the eastern Libyan city that's been under siege for the past two weeks, poured out into the streets today firing guns wildly into the air and celebrating a stunning reversal in fortune.
“This is our victory, we did this,” says Abdul Hamid Zwei, an Ajdabiya native snuck back into town from Tripoli two weeks ago to participate in the rebels' defense of the city. “But there’s no way we’d be celebrating today if not for all of Qaddafi’s tanks and vehicles being destroyed from the air.”
Indeed, the panicked withdrawal of Muammar Qaddafi’s troops from town around dawn this morning marks the first major military victory for the rebellion and owes much to the resolve of the uprising’s young militia. But what really turned the tide here was the massive, sustained air campaign mounted by Britain, France, and the US in the past week.
While the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the action says the air campaign is only to protect civilians, its implementation is giving the rebellion their best chance of marching on Qaddafi’s strongholds in the west.
Devastatingly precise air strikes
Huge stockpiles of ammunition lie jumbled by the road leading west. Around town are the remains of over 20 tracked military vehicles – tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery guns.
Charred turrets 20 feet away from the tanks they were once attached to are evidence of precision strikes in recent days by British Tornadoes. Some of the men who crewed them were caught inside. Abandoned military uniforms here and there are momentos of frightened men who fled to avoid a similar fate.
On a small rise on the northern approach to town from Benghazi, the rebel capital, the destroyed armor appeared to have been deployed in defensive positions, a measure of the expansive interpretation of “protecting civilians” the international coalition has been using here.
Mr. Zwei isn’t complaining. Over the past two weeks, he says, snipers shot randomly at citizens on the streets and shelling from tankers off the coast fitted with grad missiles hit neighborhoods unpredictably. A whole family on his street was taken away by Qaddafi’s forces and has not been heard from again, he adds.
Less damage than expected
During the stand-off with Qaddafi's forces, small bands of young rebels continued to set ambushes for the roughly 1,000 government gunmen in town even as missile and tank fire rained down on their city. This morning, the rebels assaulted Qaddafi’s forces in their camps on the traffic circles around dawn.
Ajdabiya itself is in better shape than some feared after weeks of fighting. In the 7th of October neighborhood on the west side of town, many of the high-rises are scarred from missile and tank fire. On the east side of town, the walls of homes and businesses are pockmarked from firefights in recent days, but most of the city is intact.
Mohammed Abdel Kareem, one of a handful of doctors at the Ajdabiya hospital who remained throughout the siege, says it’s far too soon to estimate casualties. In the past two days, he says the hospital has received 100 civilian casualties, and this morning the morgue received 50 dead – but many of those are Qaddafi soldiers killed in the airstrikes.
“I expect in the coming days we’ll find out whole families are missing,” says Dr. Kareem. “A lot of injured were afraid to come here because they thought they might get arrested.”
'Mercenaries' rounded up
A few blocks away is evidence that war, particularly in Qaddafi’s Libya, creates victims in many different ways. A group of militiamen in an SUV pulls up alongside a car with foreigners in it. “Follow us,” the driver shouts. “We’ve got captives.”
A few minutes later, in the yard of a local home, three of Qaddafi’s infamous “mercenaries” are produced. Two are black men from Chad, one barefoot, the third a Libyan man in his late 50s with rheumy eyes, an unkempt grey beard, and plastic sandals. All are terrified.
All say they were rounded up in Tripoli and sent to the front without training. One of the men from Chad says he was promised a home and a car. The other simply says he worked as a doorman. They dropped their rifles when the airstrikes started, and tried to escape on foot, before the rebels caught them today.
Though there’s been much discussion of Qaddafi’s use of “foreign mercenaries” in the conflict, a lot of the fighters he’s using appear to be poor and unemployed migrants who found themselves in Libya when the uprising began.
In Benghazi, a member of the rebel government says other so-called mercenaries who’ve been caught claim they were offered a little money to simply join in pro-Qaddafi demonstrations, having no idea they were being shipped off to war.
'Qaddafi even worse than Italian [colonists]'
About five miles south in the desert, seven extended families have been camped out for weeks, and are delighted to hear that it’s now safe to go home. “There were bombs falling on us, from the sea, from the air,” says Akram Sheiki. “We had to get out with the children.”
In a long tent, the men in the camp gather to shout “God is great,” share news, and talk about how long Qaddafi can hang on. Mr. Sheiki’s uncle Ali Said, with a perfectly trimmed white beard, can hardly conceal his glee at Qaddafi’s defeat.
His only son died in a massacre of 1,200 Islamist inmates at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996.
After praising the international action – particularly French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s emerging as a local folk hero here with babies named after him and his name chanted at rebel celebrations – he launches into a lengthy poem comparing the struggle against Qaddafi to the jihad against Italian colonialism here in the 1920s.
“Qaddafi is even worse than the Italians,” says Mr. Said. “He’s a Muslim and a Libyan, and he treats us even worse than he did.”
The battles ahead
Now this key crossroads, with highways leading to oilfields in the south and the coastal population centers of the eastern coast, is firmly back in rebel hands. This afternoon, rebels had pushed west to the approaches of Brega, an oil and gas depot that Qaddafi successfully seized in early March.
But they remain lightly armed and poorly trained – though the vast stockpiles of ammunition Qaddafi’s forces left behind will certainly help. Rebels have reportedly already retaken Brega, the next main town on the road west. Reclaiming the oil terminal at Ras Lanuf also seems possible.
But a march on Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown and a key to the west much as Ajdabiya is a key to the east, remains a very difficult task for the emerging rebel army.