Deadly struggle for survival is waged in west of Libya

Rebel fighters in Misrata are pursuing their liberation with determined efficiency
Click to follow
The Independent Online

They had spent the previous evening passionately debating the political shape of a brave, new democratic Libya. Yesterday they were back fighting hard to keep alive that dream of transformation, street by street, yard by yard, in the bloody heart of Misrata.

There has been no let-up in the ferocity and intensity of the strife in this western city which has become the symbol of defiance and determination for the revolution. The brief calm of an early morning of sunshine and breeze was soon shattered by booming echoes of missile fire from Muammar Gaddafi's forces. The response, long bursts of machine-gun fire, came a few minutes later, followed by the prolonged sound of airplanes above, a sign perhaps of Nato stepping up its military campaign.

But the real violence was unfolding in the centre of the city, at Tripoli Street, which has become an arena for enemies meeting in implacable hatred. Part of the long thoroughfare is a snipers' alley for the regime, where civilians, including quite a few children, have been shot by regime forces. Other stretches are a free-fire zone for both sides with buildings changing hands by the hour.

Keeping his eyes on a shard of mirror placed on a low wall to warn of approaches by Gaddafi's troops from behind, Omar Hassani was pensive.

"They surprised us yesterday at this spot. They had gone around the side roads and we did not notice them until they were very near. They opened fire from three directions and we had to withdraw," he said. "Two of our guys could not get away; they were both killed."

As he spoke, rocket-propelled grenades began to crash 500 yards away, pulling down what was left of a shop front. More flew high and wide landing with dull thuds at a distance. The failure by the loyalists to hit their targets emboldened Omar Hassani. Beckoning a group of six companions forward, he outlined a move to cross a narrow track into a block of flats which would allow them a vantage point.

"I am an architect – I do not know military strategy. We are trying things and most of the time it has worked," he said, apologetically spreading his hands. "But if it does not and something happens to these guys, it will be my fault."

Omar Hassani and his men sprinted out and, after a brief skirmish, had attained their objective: the regime's position became silent. The manoeuvre had been carried out smoothly and with competence. What happened was in marked contrast to the performance of the rebel fighters in their bastions in the east of the country, whose actions have been beset by incompetence and a proclivity for terrified retreat at the first sign of enemy fire.

Wolfing down a lunch of spaghetti, Omar Hassani tried to be diplomatic about his eastern allies. "We think they use different tactics. Also they have places to fall back to – they can go back all the way to Benghazi if necessary, maybe even Tobruk," he said.

"Here we do not have that choice. We have nowhere to run to – we are between Gaddafi and the sea. Misrata is our home. If it falls, Gaddafi will kill us anyway, so we have had to learn to survive."

Libya's revolution in the west is disparate in ways other than fighting aptitude. Some of the grievances against the regime in the east are economic, a deep feeling of resentment at losing out on a share of oil wealth which has resulted in underdevelopment. Misrata, Libya's third city, about 150 miles from Tripoli, has been relatively prosperous, with a strong mercantile tradition and one of the highest literacy rates in the country. "We did not rise up in Misrata because we are poor. We rose up because we want freedom," said Abdullah Mohammed, an engineer who has returned from Liverpool to join the revolution. "Some of us have been lucky enough to travel abroad, to see how people can say what they want to, think freely. That is all we are trying to achieve here. We cannot let our children go through 40 more years of this – Gaddafi being followed by one of his sons."

Misrata has paid a heavy price for its act of rebellion. Buildings around the city have been damaged by heavy weapons. The human toll stands at more than 600 killed and about 3,000 injured.

"It has been hard, very hard – so many families have been affected here: almost everyone knows someone who has suffered," said Ashraf Ibrahimi, another rebel fighter. "No one in the outside world had heard of Misrata before. Now they have and we hope they do not forget us; we hope they realise that what we are trying to do here is the right thing, and we have no other choice if want to live as free human beings."