Corrected: Rebels clash with Gaddafi forces on road to Sirte

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 28, 2011 10:44 AM
Corrected: Rebels clash with Gaddafi forces on road to Sirte

(Corrects name of town to Nawfaliyah in paragraph 2)

By Angus MacSwan

NAWFALIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels fired mortars and rounds from heavy machineguns in sporadic clashes with Muammar Gaddafi's forces as they advanced westwards along the coast Monday.

Aided by Western-led air strikes against Gaddafi's loyalists, the rebels took the town of Nawfaliyah and moved toward the Libyan leader's hometown of Sirte.

Just west of sandy, barren Nawfaliyah, bursts of sustained machinegun fire and the whoosh of several rockets could be heard, and plumes of black smoke rose ahead.

"Our guns are trying to get the Gaddafi people," said Faisal Bozgaia, 28, a hospital worker turned rebel fighter. "Those are from our guns," he told Reuters, pointing to the smoke columns.

Rebels said occasional ambushes by Gaddafi forces had pushed them back but that they later regained their positions.

"We were fighting here with Gaddafi forces. We are advancing one, two kilometers at a time," rebel Khalif Ali, 22, said in the town of Harawah, west of Nawfaliyah.

Contradicting a previous claim to have captured Sirte, a rebel spokesman in the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi said rebels were planning to enter the town Tuesday or Wednesday.

"The military is doing reconnaissance right now to see how difficult it would be to enter Sirte. We were attempting to probably try to enter it tomorrow or the day after. Not one of the rebels has entered Sirte right now," Ahmed Khalifa said.

"They are checking for the possibility that the area was mined. Before Sirte, there is a big open area and they need to be sure before they attack that they can do it," he said.

MAJOR HURDLE

Mustafa Gheriani, another spokesman in Benghazi, said rebel special forces had joined the mostly inexperienced volunteer fighters grouped outside Sirte.

Besides being Gaddafi's birthplace, Sirte has an important military base, so the town, 400 km (250 miles) east of Tripoli, has great symbolic and strategic value. If it fell, the rebels would get a major boost and overcome one major hurdle on their way to Tripoli.

Gheriani said there were landmines and some Gaddafi forces between the rebels and the town, and that they were trying to figure out how to mount an assault.

He said he was optimistic Sirte's population would welcome the rebels, not join the Gaddafi militias in fighting them.

"Gaddafi has a small fraction of the Gaddadfa tribe that supports him," said Gheriani, adding that most people in Sirte were from other tribes. "All are treated the same way as in Benghazi and anywhere else... I think they would welcome the opportunity to push him out," Gheriani said.

Western-led air strikes to protect civilians have turned the battlefield dynamics in favor of the rebels, who are mostly enthusiastic but poorly trained volunteers united in their campaign to end Gaddafi's autocratic four-decade rule.

Despite Gheriani's assertion that special forces were near Sirte, there was little sign of command at the frontline, as has been often the case in the five-week insurgency.

Some rebels wore camouflage fatigues, but others had normal civilian clothes. Pick-ups carried mattresses and plastic garden chairs. Some rebels stopped their vehicles to pray by the dunes.

"We started in Ajdabiyah and we are now clearing the area," said Khalef Abaga, a 37-year-old fighter, referring to the strategic town to the east recaptured Saturday.

"I left my family to fight for freedom," he said.

Abaga said rebels were in high spirits and that they were now better organised than in the past.

Asked who was in charge, he said: "I cannot give a name for security reasons, but God is our commander."

(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz in Benghazi; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia in Cairo; editing by Mark Trevelyan)