BENGHAZI, Libya — The wooden crates were stacked up on the dock like Lego blocks and clearly stamped with their contents: tank rounds, rifle cartridges, ammunition. The men on the dock, however, had a different explanation for what was inside the shipment bound for the besieged rebel-held city of Misrata.
"Diapers," one said, and they laughed. The lie was unconvincing, particularly since a few of the crates had popped open, exposing the bottoms of artillery shells.
As Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces pummel Misrata, the largest rebel-controlled city in western Libya, residents there are fighting back thanks largely to weapons, volunteer fighters and relief supplies sent via tugboats and fishing vessels from the opposition capital of Benghazi.
The arms, most of which were seized from military storage facilities in eastern Libya that are now in rebel hands, include anti-tank rounds, ammunition for sniper rifles and light weapons, officials in Benghazi said. Earlier this week a boat was loaded with antiballistic Kevlar vests and helmets reportedly provided by Qatar, the only outside country that's furnished the rebels with weapons.
Thuraya satellite phones and other communications equipment — much of it purchased by Libyan businessmen who support the rebels — have also been among the shipments. Even poor fishermen have gotten into the act, loading the ships with so-called gelatino bombs — crude devices made by stuffing empty aluminum cans with explosives, which are often used here to hunt fish.
Along with large quantities of milk, vegetables, children's formula, medicine and other supplies, the weapons have allowed Misrata, a port city of about 500,000 people, 130 miles east of the capital, Tripoli, to repel a weeks-long siege by Gadhafi's forces.
NATO airstrikes have destroyed some of Gadhafi's tanks and artillery units in the area, but pro-government forces have cut water and electricity to much of the city, seeded it with snipers and kidnapped as many as thousands of opposition supporters, residents said. Benghazi, now firmly in opposition hands and well stocked thanks to an open eastern border with Egypt, is stable enough to serve as a supply line.
"Benghazi is the artery for life in Misrata," said Firaj Mohammed al Mahdowi, a leather-skinned former captain in Gadhafi's navy who now helps coordinate the aid effort in the port of Benghazi. "We supply them with whatever we can — fighters, weapons, anything. Those are our brothers."
While Libya's opposition tends not to publicize the arms shipments, preferring to focus on the humanitarian aspect of the near-daily missions, they're an open secret in Benghazi. As Mahdowi spoke Friday afternoon, a large truck piled high with olive-green crates, many of them with the word "cartridges" stenciled on their sides, unloaded its cargo onto a tugboat that was expected to depart Benghazi for Misrata on Saturday.
Whether they violate a U.N. arms embargo on Libya is unclear. Last week, a Turkish naval ship patrolling the Libyan coastline as part of the NATO military mission intercepted a private vessel ferrying weapons to Misrata and forced it to turn around, citing the U.N. embargo.
But many argue that the embargo applies only to shipments destined for Gadhafi's forces, and most ships from Benghazi have been allowed to reach Misrata.
The gravest challenge to vessels ships seems instead to be dodging shelling by Gadhafi's forces, which remain parked on the city's western outskirts, as little as 20 miles away, according to residents.
A barrage of rocket fire against Misrata's shoreline on Thursday killed at least 13 people, hospital officials said, and prompted the closure of the port for several hours. Among the ships that were delayed was a vessel chartered by the International Organization for Migration, which finally docked in Benghazi late Friday carrying nearly 1,200 foreign migrants who'd been stranded in Misrata.
Last month, Benghazi port officials said, a fishing boat that couldn't dock in Misrata due to shelling by Gadhafi tanks lost contact with the harbor when its radio broke down. The boat drifted out to sea, where it remained for several days; one of the crewmen aboard suffered a heart attack and died.
"There is an element of risk there all the time," said Ibrahim Hadia, an official at the Benghazi port.
Opposition members said that the shipments, however, pale in comparison to Gadhafi's military strength, which includes a range of multiple-rocket launchers and what rebel military commanders say are hundreds of Soviet-made tanks.
The opposition effort is decidedly ad hoc, coordinated by an overstretched crisis management team that coordinates its activities with the Transitional National Council, the rebel governing body.
Wajdi al Sahli, 26, who fled Misrata for Benghazi aboard a boat earlier this week, said that about 50 Libyan army soldiers who defected from Gadhafi's regime have been managing the weapons supplies, ensuring they don't fall into enemy hands. Along with weapons seized from Gadhafi forces, the Misrata rebels have enough arms to continue to fight for several more weeks.
"All the guns they're using right now, they've taken back from Gadhafi," Sahli said. "God willing, they will free Misrata in two or three weeks."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011