NALUT, Libya — Fresh from seizing a key border crossing from Moammar Gadhafi's forces, rebels in this rugged mountain town said Sunday that they're winning a tough and largely unseen war in western Libya but need foreign intervention to finish the job.
The fall on Thursday of a Gadhafi military post at Wazin, on Libya's southern border with Tunisia, opened an important supply route for the rebels and a safety valve for thousands of besieged civilians, who've streamed over the newly open border carrying bulging suitcases and colorful foam mattresses to seek refuge in Tunisian towns.
On a rare visit by a Western journalist to the remote area since fighting began, rebels described a swift morning shootout that ended after scarcely an hour, when about 100 pro-Gadhafi fighters beat a sudden retreat over the sandy hills and into Tunisian territory. They left behind a trove of anti-aircraft weapons, rockets, automatic rifles and three pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, which the under-equipped rebels happily gobbled up.
As the war in eastern Libya settles into a stalemate and pro-regime forces continued on Sunday to bombard rebel-held Misrata _ despite claims that they'd withdraw from the coastal city _ one of the few places that the anti-Gadhafi forces can lay claim to victory is the western mountains. The seizure of Wazin has buoyed the opposition movement, but whether the rebels can use it as a springboard to challenge Gadhafi's four-decade grip on the capital, Tripoli, remains far from clear.
"When this gate came into our hands, Gadhafi must have felt like he was falling," said a bearded, wild-haired rebel leader named Ayman, who asked that his last name be withheld to shield family members in Tripoli, the capital, from reprisals. "Politically and militarily, it was like breaking his legs."
A hospital accountant before the uprising, Ayman met a McClatchy reporter in the rebel enclave of Nalut, 30 miles inside the border along a snaking hilltop highway. He was huddling with a handful of middle-aged rebel commanders inside the town's former government compound, where a large poster of Gadhafi had been torn down and young fighters wearing "Free Libya" t-shirts loitered in the courtyard.
The fighting in Libya's craggy, wheat-colored western mountains has largely escaped international attention because the area was all but inaccessible to journalists when Gadhafi held Wazin. Rebels now control the 100-mile mountain highway from the border north to Zintan, the largest town in the area and scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, but pro-regime forces are said to lurk in villages just miles from the road.
Whether the rebels can consolidate their far-flung gains and challenge Gadhafi's four-decade grip on Tripoli remains far from clear.
While the inexperienced fighters here have proven more adept than their fellow rebel counterparts in eastern Libya _ who've tended to run from gunfire and sometimes shoot each other _ controlling Wazin doesn't solve their most pressing challenges: few high-powered weapons, a lack of communications equipment and a forbidding terrain that makes it easy for Gadhafi's forces to hide in hillsides and crevasses.
Rebels complained that there had been no NATO airstrikes in the area around Nalut, and they pleaded for assistance from the United States and other countries that say they want Gadhafi to go.
"We have a lot of fighters but we don't have a lot of weapons," Ayman said.
The rebels say they're in close contact with the opposition military leadership in the east, calling them several times a day by satellite phone and transmitting locations of suspected Gadhafi positions. But they're not under the authority of the fractious Benghazi-based commanders _which could help explain their recent successes.
The uprising here has evolved town by town, linking Arabs in the northern mountains with the mostly Berber, or Amazigh, people in places farther south, like Nalut. The Berbers were historically marginalized by Gadhafi, who barred them from giving their children non-Arab names or speaking their native language, but whatever rivalries existed between the two sides seem to have vanished in the fight against the regime.
In the battle for Wazin, rebels from Nalut, Zintan and two other towns joined together, each led by an officer who defected from Gadhafi's military. The night before the attack, about 150 rebels camped in a village called Meraba, in a dusty valley just over the hills from the border.
Just after dawn they began their advance. Although they were outgunned _ Gadhafi's forces had a half-dozen machine-gun-mounted pickups, to just two for the rebels _ they remained in formation and withstood barrages of gunfire, coming to within 500 yards before the loyalists fled.
"They ran off so quickly," said Ayman Askar, a 32-year-old fighter, "that we couldn't even chase them."
The regime seemed caught off-guard when Wazin fell, at first denying the reports. The area lies at the midway point of a pivotal 300-mile supply line for Gadhafi's forces between Tripoli and a military airport at Ghadames, near the borders with Tunisia and Algeria, which rebels say the regime is using to bring in fuel and fighters.
"When we heard that Gadhafi forces were shifting from Misrata, we began to think that they'll come here. We're preparing for that. We have a plan," Ayman said, declining to elaborate.
As he spoke, the crack of a machine gun shook the hills. The rebels, he said with a smile, were practicing on their newly acquired weapons.
Apart from the fighters and a handful of sad-looking grocery stores and tea stalls, Nalut, which rebels have held since the start of the uprising, is all but deserted. Most of the 25,000 residents have escaped to Tunisia, including Ayman's wife and son.
Besides allowing families to leave, the opening of the Wizan border makes it easier for the rebels to transport their wounded to Tunisian hospitals _ several fighters have died as rebel trucks traced long, off-road paths around the checkpoint and into Tunisia _ and to restock food and other supplies.
On Sunday morning, Askar's brother loaded up an SUV with cartons of milk, diapers, latex gloves and painkillers in the Tunisian border town of Dehiba and raced up the mountainside to deposit them in Nalut. An hour later, he was back on the road to the border to make another run _ a treacherous commute that Askar said was just part of the war effort.
"We are fighting for our rights, so we're not scared to die _ not like them," Askar said. "When you're fighting for your city and your country, you are not scared of anything."
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