By Rania El Gamal
SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - For seven months, Matthew Van Dyke has been fighting a war that is not his.
A U.S. citizen, from Maryland, he left home to come to Libya in March to fight Muammar Gaddafi's forces, spent 165 days in prison and when he was released returned to the front line.
"I am here to fight Gaddafi ... I will leave when it is finished ... when Libya is free," he said, on the outskirts of the coastal city of Sirte, where heavy fighting between forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and Gaddafi loyalists has been going on for weeks.
Van Dyke is a familiar face among NTC fighters and journalists on the front line in Sirte.
When he is not fighting, he is taking journalists covering the war on battlefield tours to where fierce combat is taking place.
Dressed in a camouflage outfit, brown headdress and sunglasses, he carries a small video camera on which he tapes the battles between NTC fighters and Gaddafi loyalists for control of Sirte, one of the last bastions of pro-Gaddafi resistance.
He is also in charge of a Russian-designed Dushka heavy machine gun mounted on the back of an open-top four-wheel drive vehicle.
His Libyan friend Nouri Founas, whom he met in 2007 in Mauritania while both were touring the Middle East and Africa, is always behind the wheel.
"He is now from Libya's revolutionaries. Our revolution is now an international one, not just local," said Founas.
FRIENDS IN NEED
The American NTC fighter said he had no combat experience before he came to Libya, apart from what little he picked when he was embedded with the U.S. army as a journalist in Iraq.
He said he first visited Libya in 2008, on a motorcycle tour through the Middle East. While there, he said he made many friends and it was the quality of those friendships that brought him back when the conflict started.
"I had friends in Libya. There were people here that I cared about. Somebody was killing my friends ... I can't sit back and watch that happening. So I came over to help fight Gaddafi," he said.
"This is personal. I wasn't here to do any work other than pick up a gun and help to free Libya."
He flew from the United States to Egypt and drove to Benghazi, in eastern Libya, where Founas was waiting for him, he said.
"I showed up in black jacket and military clothes and I said 'I'm here to fight Gaddafi, give me an AK47'," he said.
While on the battlefield in the eastern Libyan oil town of Brega, Van Dyke said he was captured in an ambush by pro-Gaddafi forces, who at the time controlled most of the country, including the capital, Tripoli.
He was imprisoned in the notorious Abu Salim jail in Tripoli. Of the 165 days he spent in detention, he said most was spent in solitary confinement. He turned 32 in prison.
"I was hit during the ambush ... Next thing I know I woke up with a guy being tortured in another cell above me," said Van Dyke.
He was sometimes kicked by angry guards but was not tortured during his time in prison, he said. But it was the stress and not knowing what would happen to him next that took the toll on him.
"The Libyan government denied that they had me for months," he said, adding he thought the government would either leave him in prison for years or execute him.
He did not tell his guards he knew some Arabic and he was able to listen sometimes to the television and hear what others said about him. Some thought he was a spy for the CIA or Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
He escaped the prison in late August, when NTC forces took control of the capital. At that point, he was free to go back home. Instead, he decided to meet up again with his friend, Founas, and rejoin the fighting.
Now he has a badge bearing his name and picture that testifies to his status as a fighter in the Ali Hassan Jaber brigade.
He says his Libyan colleagues want him to stay on once the conflict is over and find a Libyan wife. He said he has a girlfriend back home, and would stay just long enough to see Gaddafi's forces finally defeated.
"I told them (my family) when I came over here that I would leave when Libya is free and my family raised me to honor my commitments," he said.
(Editing by Christian Lowe)