When NATO warplanes hit three Libyan rebel tanks west of Ajdabiya yesterday, the airstrikes touched off a panicked exodus from the city. The errant attacks also set off wild rumors that Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s air force once again controlled Libya's skies.
The strikes were a case of mistaken identity, the deputy head of the alliance's Libya operations insisted today. “The situation in the area is still very fluid, with tanks and other vehicles moving in different directions,” British Rear Admiral Russell Harding told reporters, adding that it was the first time NATO had encountered rebel tanks on the move.
But the reaction to the incident demonstrates a growing well of frustration in Libya’s east as rebels begin to realize that international action is not designed to win their war for them. In Benghazi, and among the lightly armed rebel militia, the first seeds of doubt are also emerging that Colonel Qaddafi will be removed from power soon.
After the NATO strikes yesterday, a small group of rebel militiamen chanted outside Ajdabiya for an end to international operations here. There were dark mutterings in Benghazi that NATO, prodded by Turkey, which has extensive business interests here, was cutting a deal behind their backs with Qaddafi.
“When it was the US and France, their fire was accurate, they were supporting us,” says Omar Mussa, who’s been with the disorganized rebel militia since late February, standing at the western gate of Ajdabiya. “Since NATO took over, there have been lots of mistakes like yesterday, and no support for us. Obviously, something is going on.”
Signs from the rebel front indicate that more such mishaps could be in the rebels' future. The young militiamen continue to fire weapons into the air for no apparent reason – and continue to deploy antiaircraft guns to the front, even though the only likely targets are now NATO planes. This afternoon, one bored militiaman fired two long bursts from his antiaircraft gun – something that runs the risk of drawing a NATO attack, if a plane happens to be overhead.
Intent of Resolution 1973
Few Libyans read the full text of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, and if they did they assumed that its call to protect Libyan civilians from violence would be interpreted as a mandate to remove Qaddafi from power.
But what’s emerged since the resolution was passed is an international community that appears willing to protect eastern cities that are clearly in rebel hands like Ajdabiya or Benghazi, but that is unwilling to bend its mandate to the point of breaking by coordinating attacks with rebel offensives pushing west.
“This is the bind NATO finds itself in,” writes Peter Bouckaert, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has spent extensive amounts of time on the rebel side of the Libyan front in the past six weeks, in an e-mail.
He helped lobby western powers to intervene when Qaddafi’s forces looked set to overrun Benghazi three weeks ago, and said NATO’s reluctance to go on the offensive stems from the deal that was struck within the UN Security Council.
NATO “committed itself to a mandate to protect civilians, and there is little doubt that the intervention by the French prevented a massacre from occurring in Benghazi. But they won't fight this war for the rebels against Qaddafi, because that isn't their mandate. So they are left to intervene whenever they feel civilians are threatened, and that can cause costly mistakes,” Bouckaert writes.
Flight follows errant strikes
Last night in Ajdabiya, which was besieged by a small force of Qaddafi loyalists for weeks until the Qaddafi tanks surrounding the city were destroyed by British jets, rebels and residents were in panicked flight, convinced that the NATO strike had paved the way for another Qaddafi assault on the city.
Brega, the next town to the west that hosts a major petrochemical complex, was retaken by Qaddafi’s forces earlier this week, and by dark thousands of Ajdabiya’s residents had convinced themselves Qaddafi’s men were moving in again. Thousands of families fled.
By morning today, it was clear there’d been no advance. But the deserted streets of the town of 100,000 – particularly on the western side nearest to Qaddafi’s forces – were testament to how quickly confidence in NATO protection has been eroded.
The elation of few weeks ago, when US, French and British attacks turned Qaddafi’s tanks and mobile rocket launchers into twisted heaps of scrap metal, convincing the rebels victory was at hand, has been replaced with confusion and anger.
“NATO has become our problem,” General Abdel Fatah Younes, who is officially in command of the rebel forces here, complained last night. “Either NATO does its work properly or we will ask the Security Council to suspend its work."
Confusion over tanks
General Younes, a close confidant of Qaddafi until he defected in late February, said NATO has been told that the rebels had taken 20 old Russian tanks out of mothballs and were moving them to the front, though that’s something that Admiral Harding appeared to dismiss today.
“It is not for us, trying to protect civilians of whatever persuasion, to improve communications with those rebel forces,” Harding said. The NATO strike also hit a rebel ambulance, killing a doctor inside.
Abdel Ali, a medical assistant with an ambulance crew just to the west of Ajdabiya, says that 23 dead civilians and rebels were found between Brega and Ajdabiya at the end of yesterday’s fighting, though he didn’t know how many of them died as a result of the NATO strikes.
For now, it’s fairly clear that Qaddafi’s forces are better equipped, better led, and more lethal than the rebels. Younes says that more trained soldiers are being brought into the fight, but there is a little evidence of them along the desert road between Ajdabiya and Brega.
The rebel militia, born out of a protest movement forced to take up arms when Qaddafi decided to fire on protesters, seems to have learned little from the past two months. Clumps of militiamen continue to charge up the road in pickup trucks toward Qaddafi’s positions, where accurate mortar fire inevitably kills them and drives them back.
There are no signs of foxholes being dug or defensive fortifications being constructed on the approaches to Ajdabiya. Younes himself rarely visits the rebels advanced positions.
“Our young men are beginning to realize that they can’t win this war without strong outside help to advance – I personally would welcome foreign troops at this point,” says Mohammed Daifullah, a retired civil servant. “But that’s an uncomfortable realization for them. So they get angry.”