Col. Ahmed Bani, the military spokesman for Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC), says revolutionary militias now have the town of Bin Jawad -- a dusty outpost on the coastal desert between the eastern city of Ajdabiyah and Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte that has changed hands at least three times in Libya's six-month-old war.
If so, it would represent a tightening of the noose around Qaddafi's last major bastion, much in the same way steady, methodical gains around Tripoli in the last monthset the stage for the capital's fall. Libyan revolutionaries are firmly in control of Misrata to Sirte's west, and have been dispatching troops towards the city from that direction. Bin Jawad would provide a platform to squeeze Sirte from the east, and be a major bargaining chip in the hands of interim Libyan leaders who say they're hoping for a negotiated surrender of Sirte rather than an all out assault.
To be sure, Col. Bani's claim of holding Bin Jawad may be premature. Three fighters who returned to Benghazi from the front east of Bin Jawad on Saturday were recalled to fight there today. And the anti-Qaddafi militias have learned from bitter experience in Bin Jawad. In early March, the town fell to them with barely a shot being fired. That day, the still raw guerrillas spent the afternoon torching the local shrine to Qaddafi's hated Green Book and celebrating, while regime forces regrouped in private homes, emerging on an offensive that cost dozens of lives and drove the revolutionaries back out of town.
Much the same happened again in April, with Qaddafi's fighters ambushing revolutionaries in town and then peppered their retreat east with mortars and grad rockets. Now, far more skilled and methodical, the guerrillas say they're taking the time to do the job right. The fighters say they were now in the process of clearing Bin Jawad house by house to make sure Qaddafi's forces were not left inside.
"We won't make the same mistake we made before," says Seraj El Mana, who is part of a civilian volunteer militia but wore a new camouflage uniform donated by Qatar.
The fighters had planned to spend several days of rest in Benghazi, but their commander called them back immediately to help in the clearing of Bin Jawad. They said there were not enough weapons for all the fighters. The three, usually on an artillery crew, have no rifles or handguns, which they need for urban combat. Out of their fighting group of 60, only about 30 have personal weapons, they said.
Mr. Mana and his comrades also scoffed at NTC officials insistence that a negotiated surrender is plan for Sirte. "There are no negotiations. There's only fighting," said Mana, describing how Qaddafi's forces were shelling them as officials talked of ongoing negotiations. He's doubtful that the tribal elders the NTC is supposedly negotiating with have any control over Qaddafi's forces, and therefore thinks the end will come through fighting, not through talking.
When Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the de facto capital of the revolution for the past six months, fell Qaddafi's defeated forces departed in convoy and on planes for Sirte. The 32nd Brigade of Qaddafi's son Khamis, probably the most loyal and capable of the regimes units, has had many of its men stationed in the city throughout the conflict. While there were unconfirmed reports today that Khamis may have been killed trying to flee Tripoli, the men in the 32nd are among the most likely of the regime holdouts to fight to the end.
One reason for the revolutionary fighters pessimism that talk will not succeed in Sirte is their view that Qaddafi's forces have been brainwashed. They described listening to a radio exchange between Qaddafi and rebel forces, in which Qaddafi's soldiers said the rebels were foreign, and asked the rebel fighters on the radio why they had brought British, French, and Qatari forces to fight Libyans.
With such a mindset, and unwilling to listen to reason, they will not surrender, said the fighters.