Days ago the rebels were advancing; now they need more than Allah

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The shelling began 18 minutes after the end of Friday prayers, round after round crashing in off the coast, the first time the navy has been used in this conflict and a fresh sign of how Colonel Gaddafi's forces had prepared themselves for the battles ahead as they attempt to re-conquer the land lost to the revolution.

The attack from the sea was followed by air strikes; a warplane streaking across the sky with the rebel forces opening up with everything at hand at the target above with loud cries of "Allah hu Akhbar". A little later two missiles came down, flashes of fire followed by black plumes of smoke spread rapidly by a gusting wind into a clear blue sky.

One had struck beside a checkpoint full of militant fighters, the other inside a petrochemical refinery. The repercussions of the second strike could have been terrible coming as it did very near huge cement barrels of crude oil. Yet it is this important complex which the regime has repeatedly tried to take as its forces continue their offensive towards Benghazi, the capital of "Free Libya". And the momentum is now firmly on its side. The site's reserves of fuel would be needed by the tanks and armoured cars arriving in increasing numbers at the front line.

Control here at Ras Lanuf, and of similar facilities at the neighbouring town of Brega, would leave Tripoli in a position to shut down power supplies to Benghazi and the rest of the territory held by the opposition. As if to reinforce the point, yesterday morning the state-run television station repeatedly played footage of Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, declaring: "This is a message to our enemies, we are coming east," to shouts of approval from loyalist supporters.

The third assault was by land, tanks approaching slowly along the road, pausing to fire mortars, heavy machine-guns and the weapon the rebel fighters fear the most – "Jarad" – Russian-made Grad rockets, relatively ancient in terms of modern warfare, but taking a steady toll of lives in this low-technology conflict.

The effect of the barrage has been a telling drop in morale among the revolutionary forces, the Shabaab. A few rounds were fired back; a pile of tyres was set alight in a hopeless attempt to blind the pilots above, while a variety of arms, from anti-aircraft artillery to Kalashnikovs, were fired off into the air. Mostly, however, the rebels, in pick-up trucks mounted with guns and on foot, simply fled further back.

Earlier in the day The Independent had joined a rebel patrol heading towards the centre of Ras Lanuf – occupied by regime troops on Thursday evening. The mood was light at first, with the fighters vowing to liberate a cappuccino machine at the El-Adil Hotel where they and the international media had rubbed shoulders. But it was a brief excursion, a Shabaab commander was adamant we could not go forward. The rebels, hitherto assiduous in courting foreign journalists, are now tetchy, blaming television coverage for revealing their positions to the enemy.

The mood was understandable: three days ago the same band of fighters was convinced they were on their way to take Sirte, the birthplace of Col Gaddafi and a loyalist stronghold, before marching on the capital, Tripoli. But a series of misjudgements, especially the failure to move into Bin Jawad, a key point in the route along the coastal road, after it had been abandoned by regime forces, had started the reversal of fortunes.

"We were very confident, but now look at this," said Ahmed Janidi, a 26-year-old accounts clerk. "Now we are nervous, we do not know what is going to happen next. We cannot match their weapons and we are finding it hard to stop them."

There was also anger about what they saw as the inertia of the opposition leadership and the indifference of the international community. "All we see is talk," complained Samir El-Fawkli, an unemployed technician. "They are talking in Europe, in America, in Benghazi. No one cares about what is really happening here, on the ground."

That reality was only too evident at a medical centre set up down the road in Brega. Mohammed Tarbus sat with his left hand mangled. It had taken a heavy calibre bullet and will have to be amputated, said a doctor. Mr Tarbus will never work again as a carpentry. Did he have any regrets about joining in the fight? "I worry about feeding my family, I worry what is going to happen to me," he shrugged. "We hope all we have done will mean that Gaddafi will go. If he succeeds then we shall really need Allah's help, because he and his sons will make sure that a lot of people suffer."