Evidence of the ferocity of the fighting in Libya’s western mountains was clear Monday at the Nalut central hospital. One young rebel lay dead under a shroud; nobody yet knew his name. Some were too badly injured to talk. One said a battle that day – in which loyalist troops were forced to retreat six miles with heavy losses – was a “big victory.”
“It is the heart that is fighting,” said the fighter as he lay in a hospital bed. He refused to be pictured wearing an oxygen mask “because they will say Qaddafi is winning.”
Few journalists have so far crossed into these western mountains, but the picture now emerging is that of a heavily outgunned militia – perhaps better organized than the rag-tag rebels in the east – that has leveraged local knowledge, international support, and deep-seated anger at Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi into unlikely victories.
This rugged terrain has witnessed a hidden war in the fight against Colonel Qaddafi. Rebel forces here – many of them ethnic Berbers native to the tough terrain – recently took control of a border crossing with Tunisia, opening a critical new supply line for the embattled opposition, and have gained enough ground in recent days to mark an important waypoint in Libya’s revolution.
Several NATO airstrikes Monday – the first after more than two months of fighting in this region – have boosted rebel confidence that this front will no longer be neglected. Rebels say that Arab and Berber tribes and towns along the 90-mile belt of the high sandstone Nafusah Mountain, which stretches from Tunisia to south of Tripoli, are now largely united in their opposition to Qaddafi, despite efforts by Tripoli to play one against the other.
“Our forces are not well experienced, they are learning as they go and we are seeking help from God to finish [Qaddafi],” says Mohammed Ahmed al-Khameisi, head of the Nalut local council of elders. “We are going to beat his troops one by one, as we did from [the border] to Nalut. We are still moving forward.”
'They are killing our brothers and sisters!'
The rebels at the hospital Monday had all fought in a battle six miles east of Nalut that pitted the Libyan government's rockets, 106-mm cannons, and anti-aircraft guns against rifle-bearing rebels using RPGs and anti-aircraft weapons captured in past battles. The rebels' win meant a new haul of weaponry, and spirits were high.
But as five badly wounded and bloodied government soldiers were rushed into the emergency room, rebel guards outside the hospital protested noisily that their enemies would be given care. “They are killing our brothers and sisters!” said one volunteer, as hospital staff tried to calm him. “We don’t have to treat them; they can just die.”
One male nurse with a blood-spattered gown explained: “We help all the patients because we are Muslim.”
Town elders said the treatment of the wounded captives showed a humane approach that was not mirrored by Qaddafi loyalists, whose units they say have poisoned wells with diesel and oil and gunned down flocks of sheep to wreck livelihoods in villages under their control.
Collaborating with NATO
Getting outside help has not been easy, on a war front that has been dominated – in both news headlines and spent ordnance – by the continuing battles in eastern Libya and the besieged rebel enclave of Misurata.
Loyalist forces “keep firing, like children playing, all day long and at night – it’s a crazy way of fighting,” says Wajdi, a young rebel organizer from Nalut whose English has been put to use giving NATO details of Qaddafi force locations and strength on a new Inmarsat satellite phone handset tucked into his pocket.
But until Monday those details went unused, even though loyalist strikes hit farms and “burned everything,” he says.
“Today NATO started strikes! Today I am very happy… I have sent to NATO so much information,” Wajdi said Monday, adding that the three or four targets were missile launchers and vehicles. “The rebels are definitely confident they will win [but] we need to cooperate with NATO because we are working to the same goals, if we apply UN Security Council resolutions to protect civilians.”
Erasing Qaddafi from Nalut
Yet the battle in the western mountains has been asymmetric from the start. In mid-February, first attempts to launch anti-government actions in Nalut were met by the arrival of troops who spirited away all weapons from the local arms depot.
Anti-government protesters – inspired by the success of Arab revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, and hoping for a similarly quick end of 42 years of Qaddafi rule – burnt a library dedicated to the ideas of the leader and another government building.
At a central traffic circle in Nalut, a statue of the Qaddafi’s “Green Book” – a confused political ideology that promises pure freedom and democracy, yet paves the way for authoritarian rule by the “strongest” in society – has been smashed and remains blackened by fire. Graffiti is everywhere, with rebel flags painted on some apartment blocks. On the wall behind the Green Book is the spray-painted word: “Freedom.”
“If you can believe it, we have only 250 AK-47 assault rifles, five anti-aircraft guns, ten heavy machine guns, and 2,000 to 3,000 bullets,” says Ali Shalbak, a rebel from Nalut who took part in those first anti-government actions. He spoke at a precipitous stony outpost between Nalut and the border that provided a sweeping view of the valley and government positions far below.
Why Qaddafi's tactics are failing
Sitting on the edge of the escarpment, one rebel surveys the hazy valley with a cumbersome sight extracted from a T-72 tank. Others used survey equipment on a tripod or big binoculars.
Loyalist Grad rockets have shot overhead in past engagements; one harmlessly struck a sandstone wall hundreds of yards away.
“We don’t know exactly how many [government] troops there are, or what they have,” says Mr. Shalbak, who shows his obsession with the band Metallica on a silver skull ring. He has observed government troops planting mines, and so rebels are now “afraid to move” into those areas.
“Any battle in the open area, the casualties are too much, we can’t survive,” says Shalbak. But tactics from Tripoli, including trying to divide Arabs in some towns against the majority Berbers, or Amazigh, have only caused them to unify against the regime.
“His actions did the opposite of what Qaddafi intended, and now we [Berbers and Arabs] are united against him,” says Shalbak. “He knows [Berber] pride here is strong, that we won’t lay down for him.”
Rebel victory not foregone
But victory is not a foregone conclusion for rebels always outgunned and often outnumbered. Loyalist use of tanks, rockets, artillery and 14.5-mm anti-aircraft guns aimed horizontal against ground targets mean rebels are usually targeted long before they can effectively fire back.
“See that rifle over there?” says rebel supporter Akram, pointing to an AK-47 leaning against a wall in Nalut.
“It has a 700-meter killing range so [the target] has to be in front of you,” says Akram, who normally resides in Ottawa, Canada. “[Qaddafi] is shooting from 20 kilometers [12 miles] away, so if you hold this [gun] or a rock, it is the same thing. It’s too far.”
Still, a drive from the Dehiba-Wazin border post 30 miles east toward Nalut shows how well defended this escarpment and this town have become, with at least one deeply dug trench to trap any oncoming tanks, and bulldozers at the ready to block roads with earth barriers.
Rebels say it would take the Libyan army days to dig through the barriers they have already built. Says one nicknamed Ayoub, the loyalist forces are as likely to “come from the moon” as to break through.
“No one gives us tanks or bombs; people here fight with bird guns. It’s a big shame,” says the caterer, who usually lives in Manchester, England. He also has a new Inmarsat satellite phone.
Rebels take border post
Rebel forces have nevertheless made real strides, including the takeover of the border post last Thursday morning, which sent more than 100 Libyan police fleeing into Tunisia – and opened a supply route that brings fuel, fresh produce, and even a few Western journalists to the lost battlefields of Libya’s western mountains.
Rebels at the border say they used siege tactics to frighten the police away. For a month they blocked all resupply roads to the border but one; then the last week before their attack they shut off electricity.
They launched their strike at 4 a.m. – perhaps using night vision recently equipment donated from abroad – and it was all over by breakfast time.
“They had nothing to fight for,” says rebel Haitham, leaning on his rifle on an outside desk marked with an Arabic scrawl: “Nalut is free.” Beside him, another rebel wrote the names of those entering and leaving Libya; a third sat in a chair, daydreaming.
That afternoon on Sunday, the crump of ten government artillery shells or rockets could be heard in rapid succession, their smoky plumes visible a few miles away.
Libyan police “felt that we are stronger and braver than they are, that we wanted it,” said Haitham. But Tripoli was angry: “When you capture a city it is not important to the government – but a border is much more important to them.”
Some flee, others fight
The reasons are clear in the line-up of cars seeking to enter Libya, often piled with donations from Tunisians, or rebel vehicles smeared with dirt and sand for camouflage, with loads of fuel, food, and even armfuls of fresh onions.
The truck carrying onions had two bullet holes, which shot through the cab and a rear window. Collections are taken up across southern Tunisia for “brothers and sisters in Libya” by local and Islamic charities.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that 30,000 have crossed this border in recent weeks to escape Libya, with several thousand ending up in camps near the border.
Mounir Touchit said his family was the last to leave Nalut, with two women and three kids. At the border, the back of his truck has a crate of tomatoes, blankets, a satellite dish, and small television.
“They are bombing too close to the houses,” said Mr. Touchit, on his way to deposit his family safely in Tunisia. Then he would return to the fight himself. “They are randomly bombing. That’s why people are so afraid.”
And the reaction of the family? From beneath their conservative black shawls, the women and children raised their fingers in ‘V’-sign favored by rebels, and said: “May God make us martyrs!”