Libyan rebels push west into less friendly territory

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 28, 2011 

BIN JAWWAD, Libya — Truckloads of rebels pushed past this village on Monday in their westernmost advance since the Libyan rebellion began more than a month ago, but whether they'll be able to advance much further remained an open question as they neared Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's hometown, Sirte.

Rebels reported that their advance units had reached the town of Nofilia, about 12 miles past Bin Jawwad, putting them nearly 90 miles from Sirte, which the rebels must take if they are to continue advancing toward Tripoli, Libya's capital.

But Sirte is a Gadhafi garrison town where there has been no hint of rebellion, and the rebels are keenly aware of what for them is a grim reality: They have come this far only because the barrage of Tomahawk missiles and laser-guided bombs the U.S. and its allies have fired over the past 10 days has sent Gadhafi loyalists reeling.

Even their presence in Bin Jawwad feels tentative. Unlike other communities, which welcomed rebels as liberators, Bin Jawwad has displayed little support for the uprising.

Only a handful of pre-Gadhafi Libyan flags popular with rebel sympathizers could be seen here Monday, and there was no sign of anti-government graffiti. Excerpts from Gadhafi's Green Book, his 21,000-word tome on governing Libya, still hung in prominent places throughout the village.

"We rebels are not comfortable in this area. We're certain there are infiltrators among us," said Nasser Zamot, 46, an oil company worker from Benghazi. "The last time we were here, (the residents) pretended to be on our side, but then led us into fights against the Gadhafi forces."

That was on March 6, when the rebels briefly held, then lost Bin Jawwad after a series of what they described at the time as ambushes set up by seemingly friendly residents.

On Monday, clusters of rebels huddled near Nofilia when a few thuds from explosives fired by retreating Gadhafi forces triggered fresh rounds of debate on whether the rebels should move back for their safety. By sunset, they'd returned to Bin Jawwad.

Hours ahead of a nationally televised speech by President Barack Obama, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blasted the U.S.-led airstrikes, saying they'd gone beyond what the United Nations had sanctioned in a resolution the Security Council passed on March 17. It called for the establishment of a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan aircraft from attacking civilians. Lavrov called for a ceasefire, according to the Russia state Itar-Tass news agency.

"We believe that the coalition's interference in the internal civil war has not been sanctioned by the U.N. resolution," he said. Russia and four other countries, including China, India, Brazil and South Africa, abstained during the vote on the resolution. Ten countries voted in favor.

Western officials defended the bombing missions, however. British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that the coalition hadn't taken sides in the conflict. "If we didn't do these sorts of things, more civilians would be dying," he said, referring to the airstrikes on Gadhafi ammunition stores and other targets.

Rebels last had Sirte in their sights on March 5, after a three-day blitz of fighting in which they beat off a Gadhafi attack on the town of Brega, then quickly occupied the town of Ras Lanouf before pressing on to Bin Jawwad. But then came the reversal at Bin Jawwad on March 6, followed by a Gadhafi onslaught that saw the rebels quickly abandon Ras Lanouf, Brega and the city of Ajdabiya. Gadhafi forces were on the verge of seizing Benghazi by March 19, when the French, British and Americans launched their attacks.

Since then, Gadhafi forces have retreated westward and rebel forces have advanced after them. Fighting, however, has been minimal, and local residents haven't returned with the rebels. Ras Lanouf, for example, which fell to the rebels over the weekend, is deserted, its homes locked, unoccupied and without electricity.

Rebels know, however, that taking Sirte will not be so easy. Sirte has been lavished with oil-fueled development projects since Gadhafi took power in Libya four decades ago and is said to be filled with Gadhafi loyalists.

The city is so important that on Monday, when a rebel spokesman announced on television that anti-government forces had moved into Sirte, two hours of celebratory gunfire shook Bengahzi.

Rebels here, miles from Sirte, confirmed they'd never set foot near the city, but shrugged off the spokesman's lie as necessary for morale.

"It's just media propaganda," said Jabala Basser, 33, who was unemployed until he became a rebel fighter.

Rebels insist that they're capable of taking Sirte. They say they have brought forward the most sophisticated of their troops — most of the rebels are untrained, barely armed and seemingly without organized leadership — and that those special forces will be the first to attack Sirte.

Some rebels said they believe the rebel military commander, longtime U.S. resident and former Gadhafi general Khalifa Hifter, has joined them in Bin Jawwad for the assault, though there was no evidence of his presence. Journalists saw a Hifter deputy several miles behind the front lines.

Still, the rebels were prepared for a bloody battle, even with Western air support.

"I won't feel safe from here to Misrata," said Ahmed Garghom, 44, a fighter, referring to another city between Sirte and Tripoli where pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces have waged a bloody battle for the past month. "Gadhafi gave too many people guns and money to be against us."

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