Libyan forces claim 'liberated' Misratah, but rebellion abounds

All the Libyan military could show on Monday was that they controlled a portion of a main thoroughfare in the city, which lies 125 miles from Tripoli and has seen weeks of clashes.

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Libyan soldiers loyal to leader Muammar Qaddafi stand in the city of Misratah, 125 miles of Tripoli, on March 28. Qaddafi's forces have gained control in part of Misratah although fighting continued in what the government said was the 'liberated' western Libyan city, rebels said.

The Libyan military sought to project an air of confidence around the rebel-held enclave of Misratah on Monday, falsely claiming victory in the western city even as antiregime forces continued their dramatic advance from the east.

Promising a trip to “liberated Misratah” – Libya’s third-largest city, located 125 miles east of Tripoli – Libyan officials brought foreign journalists at dusk to a point 1.5 miles south of the city center to witness a celebration by scores of people waving green flags and posters of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

“We’ll catch them one by one, like rats,” said Ahmed Abdel-Salam, a young volunteer militiaman wearing mismatched camouflage and a green headwrap with the lettering: “God, Muammar, Libya – only!”

Libya’s state-run TV cameras were already set up to record the moments of joy along a length of the main Tripoli Street that has clearly seen heavy fighting.

The Libyan Foreign Ministry on Monday announced a cease-fire against “terrorist groups” in the city, according to Libya’s state-run news agency. “The city of Misurata now enjoys security and tranquility and public services have started to recover their ability to provide customary services to all citizens,” it said.

Fireworks were set off in the capital on Monday night, in further celebration.

Signs of rebellion easy to see

But all Mr. Qaddafi’s forces could show on Monday was that they controlled a portion of a main thoroughfare in the city. To bring visitors, they had to skirt the southern edge of town – where the evidence of coalition airstrikes against loyalist targets was plain – before driving into the area partially under their control.

And even here signs of rebellion were easy to see, as shooting continued with light and heavy machine guns. Explosions sounded and smoke rose from the direction of the airport.

The words “Down with Qaddafi” remain spray painted in red high up on a metal frame at the center of a key intersection. Dollops of mud have been thrown in an attempt hide the graffiti; similar words are painted on the hulk of a destroyed truck, though smeared with mud to mask their message.

Rebels denounced as foreign terrorists

While Libya’s rebellion continues to make new gains off the back of Western airstrikes against Qaddafi forces, there is no doubt that loyalists harbor an especially high level of hatred for the people of Misratah who have dared to challenge Qaddafi’s rule.

Along the route from Tripoli, even signposts for Misratah have the name blacked out, and loyalists here denounced them as foreign terrorists and vowed to continue the fight.

“We have here not Libyans, but Algerians, Tunisians, Egyptians, and other terrorists,” said one officer with a short-cropped beard, as he strode across the intersection at the edge of no-man’s-land in Misratah. He would not give his name.

“We have already won – even if they still attack us, we have already won,” said another Libyan officer with a military radio hanging at his left shoulder. He gave his name as Capt. Walid. “And we will try to face them as much as we can. They are not strong … because they are less than us.”

“We feel sorry to fight all those people,” said Walid, speaking in English. “We asked them many times to put down their arms. Our orders are very clear: we can deal with anyone only if they shoot at us.”

And the power of the airstrikes? “It makes me stronger because we are facing big countries, and they have no right to do that,” said the captain. “I am not afraid. This is my job, just to protect my people, to protect my country.”

The rebels admit that Qaddafi loyalists now control part of the city, though the cease-fire was a myth – as two previous cease-fire declarations proved illusory.

“There is no cease-fire,” a rebel spokesman called Ali told Reuters. “About 15 to 30 minutes ago, they started randomly firing tank and artillery shells on the city and their snipers are still shooting at people.”

Lack of serious defenses

The road east of the capital to Misratah told a story of use to the rebels aiming to advance westward: an apparent lack of serious defenses. Yet further to the west, numerous checkpoints line the road, including one where soldiers and militiamen have been confiscating cassette tapes and breaking mobile phones.

But soldiers camped at points along the road appeared little deterrence to a future rebel advance. Troops lounged near canvas tents, hung laundry on lines strung between eucalyptus trees, and had huge aluminum pots piled up for making food.

Multi-barreled heavy machine guns and even tanks were hidden under trees or buried under branches for concealment. One military fuel truck tucked under a tree was destroyed by an airstrike. But there were few of those among the olive groves east of the capital, even as – closer to Misratah – they turned to palm groves.

One set of picnickers with a red car raised their arms in triumph as a journalists’ bus passed by, with official police escort.

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