Libyan rebels advance on Muammar Gaddafi’s home town


Revolutionaries move further west along Libya’s coastal road, seizing several towns without resistance, and reach Sirte

Chris McGreal in Bin Jawad and Ian Black in Sirte

A Libyan rebel fighter sits in his vehicle as rebel forces move towards Muammar Gaddafi's home town
A Libyan rebel fighter sits in his vehicle as rebel forces move towards Muammar Gaddafi’s home town, Sirte. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Libyan rebels are advancing on Muammar Gaddafi’s home city, Sirte, after retaking all the ground lost in earlier fighting as government forces broke up and fled under western air strikes.
Revolutionary forces rapidly moved more than 150 miles west along Libya’s coastal road, seizing several towns without resistance, as the first witness accounts emerged of the devastating effect on Gaddafi’s army and militia of the aerial bombardment that broke their resistance at Ajdabiya on Saturday.
A Libyan rebel spokesman said Sirte had been captured by the rebels on Monday morning, but there has been no independent verification of this. The town marks the boundary between the east and west of Libya and has great symbolic importance as Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown.
The area was quiet after heavy bombardment from the pre-dawn hours and there was no sign it had been taken by the Benghazi-based rebels advancing from the east. It is rumoured that the outskirts have been planted with landmines.
Rebels retook the important oil towns of Brega, Ras Lanuf and Ben Jawad, and continued on the open desert road towards Sirte, about 95 miles away.
A doctor treating wounded government soldiers described hundreds of deaths, terrible injuries and collapsing morale.
Two loud explosions were heard on Sunday night near Sirte. It was not immediately clear what had been hit but local people said a military installation in the city was bombed on Saturday night – one of many targeted across the country in a week of coalition strikes. Soldiers manning a mobile radar station on the outskirts of the city looked nervous as night fell and aircraft were heard overhead.
Large numbers of armed men, militiamen as well as regular soldiers, were on the streets and there was less of the exuberant defiance and loyal pro-Gaddafi slogans of the sort heard constantly in Tripoli.
Travelling eastwards from the capital, the war feels closer. In Bani Walid, south of Tripoli, tank transporters carrying dirty armoured fighting vehicles drew a small crowd, and an appreciative volley of machine gun fire. Other Libyan army vehicles moved west along the main road, including some heavy tanks – Soviet-made T-72s – but there were no signs of large-scale movement.
Everywhere, there are long queues at petrol stations, sometimes with hundreds of vehicles stretching down the road as they wait. At one queue, drivers were relieved when a tanker finally delivered a load of fuel, but then reacted with frustration when there was no electricity to operate the pumps.
As well as its political significance as Gaddafi’s birthplace, Sirte is seen as important to his defence of Tripoli, the capital, which is now less than 300 miles from the rebels’ frontline. Control of the oil terminals at Brega and Ras Lanuf is in itself a major gain because it could bring the rebel administration significant revenue from exports if production resumes. Rebels moved unchallenged along a road littered with evidence of the air campaign and the speed of their enemies’ retreat. The blackened carcasses of tanks, armoured vehicles and military trucks were pushed to the side of the road.
In their hurried retreat from Ras Lanuf, government forces abandoned piles of ammunition. They included grey wooden boxes containing rockets but stamped as holding “parts of bulldozer”, manufactured in North Korea. In Bin Jawad, residents said a destroyed municipal building had been hit by an air strike. The rebels forced captured Gaddafi fighters on to buses and drove them to Benghazi.
Witnesses described the bombing’s devastating effects on his forces.
A doctor at the hospital in Ras Lanuf, which treated most of the government soldiers wounded in the coalition air raids on Ajdabiya and the road from Benghazi, described hundreds of casualties, breaking morale and many soldiers faking injuries to escape the assault.
The doctor – who wished to be identified only by his first name, Abdullah – had responded to a call from Gaddafi’s government for medical personnel to go to the front two weeks ago. Today, he accidentally found himself on the rebel side of the line.
“The first days, Gaddafi’s forces had very high morale and they came in large numbers, thousands. There were the army soldiers and then the volunteers in the militia,” he said.
“They were fighting the rebels, no problem, and winning. But then came the bombing [by coalition air strikes]. The first day we had 56 seriously wounded. To the head, the brain, lost arms and legs. Soldiers with a lot of shrapnel in them. It was like that every day after.”
Abdullah said all the wounded were on the Gaddafi side, with about two-thirds being those injured in the bombing of Ajdabiya where there were days of fighting as government forces blocked the rebel advance.
The doctor said he did not know how many soldiers were killed in the air strikes, because the bodies were taken from the battlefield for burial.
“The soldiers who came to the hospital told me there were 150 dead just on the first day of the bombing. After that, there were fewer because they hid,” he said.
“It started to have a big effect on their morale. They said they could fight the rebels but not the planes. In recent days, many of the soldiers were trying to find excuses to leave the front. Ten to 20 a day came to the hospital pretending they were injured, asking for a medical certificate. They didn’t have any physical injuries, but I gave it [a certificate] to them.”
Abdullah was sceptical about rebel accusations that many were foreign mercenaries. He said he had not see anyadded it was possible that some of the soldiers were not Libyan.
But he did say that Gaddafi’s forces had systematically maltreated the civilian population, particularly those suspected of coming from the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi and other towns in the east under the revolutionaries’ control.
“There was bad treatment of the civilians. One patient came here who had been trying to escape Ajdabiya with his family. The government army shot him in the leg,” he added.
“The idea I got from civilians who came to the hospital is that things were very bad for them. They were beaten. Some said their family members had disappeared. They didn’t know if they were killed.”
Some of Gaddafi’s forces were billeted in the el-Adeel hotel, in Ras Lanuf, which they looted as they fled, taking mattresses and televisions and levering open cash machines in the lobby. On walls across the town they sprayed in green paint three words: “God, Gaddafi, Libya.”
Beyond Sirte lies the large town of Misrata, most of which is in rebel hands after an attempt by Gaddafi to retake it was driven off by air strikes. Government forces kept up their shelling at the weekend, although residents said it was considerably less intense than a week ago, after 12 hours of aerial bombardment by western planes destroyed more than 20 tanks and drove Gaddafi’s forces to the edge of the town.One rebel, Sami, told Reuters by telephone that pro-Gaddafi forces had fought with rebels in Misrata. “All day long we heard clashes between rebels and Gaddafi forces in the area of Tripoli Street, in the city centre,” he said. “We heard tanks, mortars and light weapons being used.”
Misrata is the only big rebel stronghold left in the west of Libya and is cut off from the main rebel force fighting Gaddafi’s troops in the east.

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