Foreboding and euphoria mix in rebel-held Libya

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 3, 2011 

AJDABIYA, Libya — One day after rebels repulsed the first major offensive by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the liberated east, the fighters' euphoria over their victory mixed on Thursday with a sense of foreboding: Where would the regime launch its next attack?

Men in clusters could be found throughout liberated eastern Libya where rumors of impending attacks raced across the landscape like desert winds. Armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and, in some places, tanks, they guarded oil fields and set up roadblocks at city entrances and airports.

Uncertain who was a potential enemy, they rounded up and jailed illegal migrant Africans who days ago would have been left alone but now are suspected of being pro-Gadhafi mercenaries. Libyans without identity cards were let go.

"We want to make the point that we don't kill Libyans. The government forces kill, but not us," said Osama Orafee, 35, a former soldier who fought in Wednesday's battle at Brega, where 12 people died and 28 were wounded, and on Thursday was manning a checkpoint near the city of Ajdabiya.

The Africans were a different story, however. Stopped at the checkpoint, they were dragged into a former school, searched and held until they could prove they weren't mercenaries.

"The people who work here illegally, we thought they were harmless. But now some have become mercenaries," Faraj al Hameed, who was in charge of security at the school, explained when asked about the case of one detainee, Ali Ibrahim al Haj, 28, who said he came from Sudan three years ago to work as a car mechanic.

For days, al Haj said, he'd hidden in his home knowing that he'd be considered a mercenary. But on Thursday, he took a chance and stepped out and was arrested. He sat on a floor alongside eight others, with a bag of bread at his feet.

"We have to," Lt. Gen. Daoud Essa Gebsey, who's now in charge of security for Ajdabiya, said when asked why the Africans were being detained. "We are living under special circumstances."

In the run-down detention center where Gebsey has his office, 14 Africans sat on the floor.

Just when the next attack would come was anybody's guess. On Thursday, a Libyan war jet dropped two bombs harmlessly in the desert near Brega, the scene of Wednesday's fighting. Another bomb landed near Ajdabiya, doing no damage beyond opening another crater among the many that can be found in both cities.

The rebels said they remained mystified about why Gadhafi forces chose to open a new frontline here in the east with major cities in the west still up for grabs. Whatever the reason, however, they believe they overwhelmed the better armed force simply by numbers, as thousands of fighters swarmed into Brega from Ajdabiya and Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, on their own as they learned of the attack.

On Thursday, the same ad hoc defense system ruled, with hundreds of men vowing to spend the night in sand dunes and along the coastal highway which links the cities with Gadhafi's capital, Tripoli, hundreds of miles to the west.

Osama Orafee, 35, was one of them. Orafee said that on Wednesday he'd left his home in Ajdabiya for the 45-minute drive west to Brega at 8 a.m. and didn't leave until 10 p.m. that night.

On Thursday, he hung around with friends at the Ajdabiya checkpoint, consuming only the bread and juice stored at the nearby security office and smoking what seemed to be a limitless supply of cigarettes. Throughout the day, the rebels warned one another of a coming air strike. When it didn't happen, they shot their weapons in the air instead.

"We are starting to get heavy weapons from other cities," Orafee said. "We are preparing ourselves for tomorrow."

In Brega, two sheets of paper hung outside the only hospital. One listed the names of the 28 people at the hospital who'd been wounded in Wednesday's attack; the other listed the 12 killed, including two Gadhafi soldiers who died at the hospital.

Suhail Elatresh, an anesthesiologist, recalled loading the Gadhafi soldiers into an ambulance: "There were a lot of people surrounding them. Some were trying to protect them. Some were trying to kill them," he said.

Thursday afternoon, Elatresh rushed around to prepare four teams of doctors to better treat the wounded, certain an attack was imminent. It never came.

"This is the new frontline. I will be there to manage the injured," he said.

Residents said Wednesday's attack began at around 6 a.m., when several hundred pro-Gadhafi soldiers came to the airport and the city's main entrance in 40 SUVs.

They were met by thousands of rebels, who forced them to the local university. There, pro-Gadhafi aircraft dropped at least three bombs to drive the rebels away and help the loyalists escape to the west, where Gadhafi still has several strongholds.

On Thursday, rebels protected the commercial airport's one strip, even as they conceded they don't have any planes to take off from it. Several men sat in a pickup truck with a high-caliber gun in the flatbed.

"We are protecting ourselves because they started shooting at people with simple weapons," said Capt. Youssef Fatroori, a member of Libya's special forces who'd defected and driven the two hours to Brega from Benghazi in response to the attack. He called the pro-Gadhafi forces "cowards."

Brega is an oil town, and facilities that span several miles define the city. But oil production, normally 10,000 barrels a day, is nearly at a standstill, though residents say natural gas is still flowing. Nearly every business is shuttered, and few residents dared to venture outside their homes.

At one entrance to town's oil complex, a group of about 50 men stood around with their weapons. They'd heard they'd be attacked at 2 p.m. When it didn't happen, most left, but some like Khalid Arafee, 27, remained, drinking tea and sitting in their cars.

"We are closing the gate (to the oil fields) just in case," he said. "They could come back anytime."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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