Rebels defy Qaddafi's fear offensive in Libya's western mountains

Zintan, a critically important town on the southern slopes of the Nafusah mountain range, has become a symbol of rebellion. It endured a barrage of rocket fire this week as Qaddafi continued punishing it.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Libyans examine a Katyusha "Grad" rocket fired by troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi that landed inside the grounds of the hospital in Zintan, Libya, on April 28, 2011. Zintan was one of the first cities to rebel in Libya's western mountains along the Nafusah mountain range, an Arab city in the midst of a predominantly ethnic Berber enclave that has repelled Qaddafi's rule and military assaults, and is now being targeted by scores of Katyusha rockets.

Deep in Libya’s western mountains, the city that first raised the flag of rebellion against Col. Muammar Qaddafi in these parts is facing a new campaign of intimidation.

Fifty Katyusha rockets were fired on Zintan in three days this week. They targeted its center for the first time, sparking an exodus and convincing residents that Colonel Qaddafi was determined to punish a city that has become a symbol of revolt in the western part of the country.

Zintan, a sprawling, dun-colored town embedded on the southern slopes of the Nafusah mountain range, has proved critically important to the civil war raging in Libya. Here, citizens set the example of boldly repelling Qaddafi’s attempts to bring them over to his side, refusing lucrative government bribes, and then defeating concerted military attempts to dislodge them.

Katyushas that once hit only the outskirts of town now target schools, hospitals, and homes, and tell the story of Qaddafi's intensifying efforts to maximize disruption and fear.

“Qaddafi wants people dead – he’s big crazy,” says Mohammed Zintani, a petroleum engineer-turned-rebel who appears uneasy with his rifle.

Why Zintan? “It was one of the first towns to rebel against Qaddafi,” says Mr. Zintani. “It’s a big city. [Qaddafi] wants to make other smaller towns afraid. But this is giving them more courage, more persistence – all we want is freedom.”

With a range of 12-18 miles, Katyushas are notoriously inaccurate, but often fired in bulk at general targets. One of the rockets struck the courtyard of a school, where student Ali Messaoud said he was surprised to see the walls scarred with shrapnel, and glass blown onto the desks inside.

“We were afraid because the sound was very large,” says Ali, who hid with his family during the attack.

A nearby mosque was also hit. The spray of shrapnel and shattered glass left a glinting mess on the prayer carpets inside. One Katyusha landed on the street outside the Zintan hospital; two more landed in the hospital grounds themselves. Houses in poorer areas were struck as well.

Little noticed but deadly battle

The battle waged against Qaddafi along the dramatic 90-mile-long Nafusah mountain, its steep escarpment a strip of sometimes-fertile high ground that rolls from Libya’s western border with Tunisia to south of Tripoli, has made few headlines.

This slice of Libya’s revolution has been spurred by the longstanding antagonism to Qaddafi's rule from the majority ethnic Berber, or Amazigh, tribes native to this rugged territory.

But Zintan, 90 miles from the Tunisia border and 85 miles southwest of Tripoli – and largely Arab like the rest of Libya – has become a special case of defiance.

“Because Qaddafi thinks that only eastern Libya was against him, he was very upset when we rose against him,” says a tall and thin rebel who carries a compact high-definition video camera and a satellite phone handset and goes by the nickname al-Kafordy, a well-known fighter against Italian colonial rule.

“He can’t hit us on the ground, so he hits us with rockets to make us scared,” says al-Kafordy. “He hates us because we are distracting his Army.”

Qaddafi's rebuffed overtures

And distract it Zintan has. Early after the anti-Qaddafi rebellion kicked off in mid-February, the government came on a recruiting drive to Zintan. They wanted to find soldiers to help put down the uprising gripping eastern Libya.

That effort reportedly kicked off protests, clashes with authorities that left some Zintanis dead, and finally a wider revolt. Qaddafi’s chief of security visited Zintan and then offered every family 1 million dinars (about $750,000) to ensure their loyalty to him.

“They refused because this is a fight for freedom [and] we can’t exchange freedom for money,” says Zintani. “They are trying to scare everyone into leaving their houses. Qaddafi is worse than Hitler or Mussolini.”

But that cash offer set Zintan apart, and Qaddafi singled out Zintan in his critical antiuprising speech of Feb. 22, in which he promised to hunt rebel “greasy rats” from “alley to alley” in every closet in every house.

Qaddafi spoke of a friend of his in Zintan, who if he was still alive, would be “calming people, because what they are doing is wrong,” according to one local interpretation.

And since then, pro-Qaddafi forces have launched a number of offensives – including an especially significant one in late March – to defeat the rebels of Zintan.

New tribal unity

The rebellion has instead spread across this mountainous enclave, yielding a cooperation between Berber and Arab tribes that never existed before. For example the people of Nalut, at the western anchor of the mountain, receive kudos across the enclave for ensuring that supplies come from Tunisia through traditional smuggling routes.

When the people of Nalut, 70 miles to the west, needed military support for their capture of the Tunisia-Libya border crossing last week, many of those who engaged in the battle came all the way from Zintan.

“Nalutis are seen as heroes, and Zintanis went to fight for them,” says French documentary filmmaker Florent Marcie, who has spent weeks with the rebels in the western mountains. He was surprised to see so many Zintan fighters at the first border battle. Others took part overnight Thursday in the recapture, again, of the border post from pro-Qaddafi forces.

Yet in Zintan, the issues are thinning gas supplies – and the large number of Katyusha rocket attacks. Some 12 or 13 landed Thursday morning, hours before this correspondent visited Zintan.

“What is really affecting us is the bombing of the hospital,” says Juma Ibrahim, a former Mig-25 pilot in the Libyan Air Force. “No one was injured but people are very scared.”

'Europe, my friend!'

NATO bombed targets in the western mountains for the first time Monday, rebels say, destroying three or four Katyusha rocket launchers – some of the 500 that Qaddafi forces had at their disposal when the conflict started – and military vehicles.

But then, for three days, silence.

“They know NATO planes were not around because they could not hear them, so the Libyan government forces took their chances,” says Mr. Ibrahim, now a rebel leader standing outside a primary school that these days serves as a rebel base.

But the rocketing is not diminishing the rebel taste for the fight – only telling them that pro-Qaddafi forces can no longer strike this town from any closer, face-to-face.

“We are 100 percent confident,” says Ibrahim. Yet he says pro-Qaddafi forces are also moving from one area to the next, “taking Scud missiles with them.”

After the rocket strikes on Thursday morning, the afternoon was quiet – and the sound of NATO jets on patrol could be heard overhead. NATO says it will be stepping up its watch on Qaddafi forces advancing on Zintan and the town of Yafran, scene of active fighting further east.

“Sarkozy! My friend, Sarkozy!” shouted Zintani at the sky, referring to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been one of the most hawkish Western leaders on Libya. “Europe, my friend!"

NATO intervention has yet to shake Qaddafi’s rule. So perhaps a more fitting warning about the determination of this town was spray painted on one wall: “Qaddafi you have to escape,” it read. “Zintan is coming.”

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