Libya in turmoil

Colonel Gaddafi: 'To the last man'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Fear, confusion and defiance as Gaddafi unleashes his wrath. Missiles rain in as the fightback finally begins

Ferocious street fighting, air strikes in a heavily populated city and a siege with terrified families held hostage: these were the violent and chaotic scenes yesterday as Colonel Gaddafi's regime began its offensive to claw back the land lost to Libya's revolution.

The target of the attack was Brega, a city lying on the coastal plain that marks a key strategic coastal route to Benghazi. The attack and reports of advances by the regime's forces spread panic in Benghazi, the capital of "Free Libya", where members of a newly formed administration asked for immediate international help.

As his forces were advancing, Colonel Gaddafi delivered a furious speech in the capital, Tripoli, lashing out at the US, UK and other states pressing him to step down, branding protesters "terrorists of al-Qa'ida" and vowing retribution. "We shall," he declared, "fight to the last man and woman."

But on the ground, his bravado was not matched by events. After a day of fierce clashes, the Gaddafi loyalists had been driven into Brega's university complex surrounded by rebel fighters, where they held more than 100 people, including children, the elderly and women, families of teaching staff and workers, as "human shields".

Later in the evening the regime forces began to move out of sections of the university, while some of the trapped civilians fled to safety in the campus.

Although the attack had been contained, there were strong indications that the regime had indeed planned to launch a major offensive with an attempt to seize control of the local airport giving it the means to fly in reinforcements.

There had been recent signs that the regime, instead of imploding under siege as some accounts have suggested, had consolidated its position and was preparing to strike back at its enemies. The Independent reported from Brega yesterday that an assault appeared to be imminent, with Gaddafi loyalists carrying out probing sorties and taking up advanced positions outside the city – a key production area for oil and gas.

A force of regular Libyan soldiers, militias and mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa, in convoys of trucks and commandeered private cars, went into the airport and the oil refineries just after 3am. Another unit attempted to cut off the main highway while a third began to move towards the next city, Ajdabiya. At the same time there was an air strike from a Libyan air force Mirage fighter-bomber on the compound of a German company which, local people say, was being used as a makeshift camp for the dispossessed, but the regime maintains was a training centre for rebels. This was the first of several missile attacks, the last one near the university in an attempt to disperse revolutionary forces surrounding Gaddafi loyalists.

Brega had been defended by a relatively light force of rebels and they were soon falling back in the face of concerted fire from regime forces using automatic rifles and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) at close quarters. On a number of occasions mortar fire was called in from fields behind the city as well as rounds from anti-aircraft artillery being used as a ground weapon.

Groups of rebel fighters in cars and lorries, some wearing green headscarves of shaheeds (martyrs), were rushing up along the highway from Benghazi to Brega. There were constant cries of Allahhu Akhbar and shouts that "Gaddafi will be defeated". Some fighters, bandoliers slung around their waists, crouched with their guns on sand dunes, pointing at smoke plumes rising out of Brega.

Coming in the opposite direction, seeking urgent help, was Mohammed Sultan, who had been among those trying to stem the regime assault. "We have light weapons, but light weapons do not work," he cried in frustration. "They are hitting people with anti-aircraft weapons. They are hitting us with more force."

At the airport Ali Sliman, another revolutionary fighter, was experiencing the full force of the enemy fire.

"I was lying on the ground trying to use my AK but there was machine-gun fire coming from two directions," he recalled. "Then I heard whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, there were these shells flying over my head. They landed behind us. One hit a car and it was completely destroyed."

But with the arrival of support from surrounding areas, the rebels began to slowly force out the Gaddafi troops. "Our reinforcements arrived but theirs didn't," said Ibrahim Idris Ali, one of a small number in the ranks of the revolutionaries who has had previous combat experience as a gunner in the Libyan army until he joined the protests nine days ago.

A piece of shrapnel had hit Sgt Idris Ali in the shoulder, but, after treatment at the New Brega Hospital, he was anxious to get back to the fight. "I need to help our people with my experience," he said. "I have to go to the refinery now, there is a big fight going on there, it would be a very difficult place to carry out an operation."

But the skirmish at the refinery was by then almost over. Khalid Qwafi, an executive with an energy company, Lifeco, believes he may have played a part in ending the firefights by telling the regime's troops: "There is a huge amount of ammonia in here, one spark and whole of Brega will go up. We will die, but do you want to die as well?" There was, in fact, a comparatively small amount of ammonia in storage, but, said Mr Qwafi, his bluff paid off.

The dead and the maimed were being ferried to New Brega Hospital in cars, pick-up trucks, a few carried on shoulders. A crowd had gathered outside and each arrival was greeted with cries of anger as well as sorrow.

Dr Namr al-Saadi, with bloodstains on his green gown, shook his head. "This is terrible, terrible. They have been shooting at ordinary people. Not fighters, ordinary people. We have had a lot of artillery, air bombs, but most of the injuries are gunshot wounds, to the head, to the torso, to the back."

Soon after he spoke there was a loud thud as another missile landed, the crowd looking up anxiously at an aircraft streaking off high above. This was followed by noise of artillery fire.

The rebels had by now also brought up their heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft artillery, which had been placed around the university and the regime troops. But, the fighters insisted, all the firing had been incoming from beyond the building. "We are desisting," said Yunus Hadi, a bearded young man in a Barcelona football shirt carrying an RPG launcher. "We do not want to hurt innocent people."

Fifteen people were reported to have died in the fighting and around 43 injured. The firefights continued into the night. In the gathering darkness more volunteer fighters were arriving from Benghazi shouting slogans of victory. But to the west, in regime-held territory, there was also movement, positions being taken up. For now, at least, the rebels appeared to have held Brega.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

£18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

Recruitment Genius: Designer

£32969 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Data Engineer

£35000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Data Engineer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence