East Libya rebels organize, head towards oil town

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 01, 2011 12:25 PM

By Alexander Dziadosz

NEAR BREGA, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels moved heavier weapons and a top commander toward the front line near the disputed town of Brega on Friday, seeking to break a stalemate against Muammar Gaddafi's better equipped army.

Rebels said neither side could claim control of Brega -- one of a string of oil towns along the Mediterranean coast that have been taken and retaken by insurgents and Gaddafi's forces in recent weeks.

A Reuters correspondent saw warplanes flying over Brega, followed by the sound of heavy bombardment. Al Jazeera television said coalition planes had bombed Gaddafi positions there but this report could not be confirmed.

Hoping to regain momentum after a dramatic retreat from recent territorial gains, rebels marshaled their rag-tag ranks into a more disciplined force and moved rockets and other equipment westwards toward Brega.

To the cheers of rebels who fired their guns into the air, Abdel Fattah Younes al Abidi, who was appointed head of the rebel forces after defecting as Gaddafi's interior minister, arrived at a checkpoint outside Brega. He later mounted his convoy and headed toward the front line.

Members of the opposition movement seeking to end Gaddafi's four decade rule have praised the enthusiasm of their fighters, many of whom are volunteers with little training and rely on pick-ups and machine guns. But they often voice frustration at the lack of discipline or strategy of rebels at the front.

There were signs on Friday of a more ordered approach.

On the road from Ajdabiyah to Brega, rebels at checkpoints screened unarmed Libyans who were trying to join the battle, while better trained officers moved to advanced positions.

Off the coastal road, pick-ups with machine guns were positioned among sand dunes in the desert to protect the rebel forces' flanks.

ADVANCE AND RETREAT

But in a pattern that has exposed the insurgents' lack of fighting capacity without the support of Western air strikes, rebels advancing toward Brega beat a panicked retreat when they came under mortar bombardment by Gaddafi's superior forces.

After being recaptured earlier this week by rebels in a rapid dash west from the eastern stronghold of Benghazi, the oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider are now in the control of Gaddafi's forces and a stalemate has set in.

A Reuters journalist late on Thursday saw about 10 vehicle transporters loaded with trucks mounted with multiple rocket launchers heading away from Benghazi toward Ajdabiyah, although it was not clear what their destination was.

Foreign journalists, who have been allowed to travel with the rebels' motley cavalcade of pick-ups at it advanced and retreated along the coastal road, were blocked from reaching the front. One rebel said it was meant to avoid giving away positions.

"This is an arena of war. It's no good for unarmed people to go ahead," said rebel Samir El Naga.

Outside Brega, half a dozen rebel pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns were positioned further south into the desert after Gaddafi forces this week forced a rebel retreat from Brega and other towns to the west by outflanking them through the desert.

"Three days ago Gaddafi came this way and bombarded us," said Jamal Mohammed, a stout bearded man with a bandolier of bullets around his chest, gesturing toward the south.

Some volunteers complained at being stopped at the checkpoint, but others said it made sense.

"Me, I am a banker, I can't fire a gun," said Mohamed Edhedha, who had come to help rebels at the gates of Ajdabiyah.

"When Gaddafi started shooting, they started running and then everyone started running. In the morning we attacked, in the afternoon we escaped, that was the normal schedule."

While rebels massed outside Brega, gun emplacements were set up in freshly dug ditches with sand berms that faced toward Ajdabiyah and the frontline, the first sign of organised defensive positions protecting Benhgazi.

The new approach has yet to be tested after the rout rebels faced this week when a two-day rebel advance forward along about 200 km (125 miles) of coast from Brega was repulsed and turned into a rapid retreat over the following two days.

The United States, France and Britain, which have led the airstrikes, have talked about the possibility arming the rebels. There have also been revelations that U.S. President Barack Obama signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. support.

Asked if he had seen any covert Western operatives at the frontline with rebels, Zaitoun said: "I wish. They have great technology. They would have useful guidance for us. I have heard many things but I haven't seen anything yet."

(Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia and Edmund Blair in Cairo; editing by Giles Elgood)