Explosion that suggests Gaddafi remains a force to be feared

Kim Sengupta reports from the lawless town of Burayqah
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The truck exploded with shattering noise in the middle of the road, flames shooting out as it swung wildly on to an adjacent field before lurching to a stop. Two men on board jumped out shouting, one beating out the smoke on the jacket he was wearing.

The vehicle, said the pair at a roadside stall, was carrying ammunition. But they refused to reveal where it was headed, brushing past bystanders who tried to stop them. The immediate cry was that it was a bomb sent by Gaddafi loyalists to hit rebel positions around Benghazi. The owner of the stall, Aizad Abdullah, was relieved that "Allah ensured it went off before more innocent people were killed".

Later, the driver, who was being taken away by security forces, claimed he was not carrying any load at all and his trailer was empty. That did not explain the secondary blast and a police captain, Saied Enas, maintained that the truck contained bullets for Kalashnikov assault rifles and a small amount of explosives.

The explosion occurred yesterday on the main route to Benghazi, the capital of Free Libya, roughly the eastern half of the country, reinforcing apprehension that the regime, instead of imploding under siege as some accounts have suggested, had consolidated its position and was striking back at its enemies.

Although the exact circumstances of this incident remained unclear there is enough evidence from further west to suggest that Gaddafi loyalists are far from a broken force. The National Council, the provisional administration set up by the protest movement, insists that the regime is holed up in the capital, Tripoli, and a few other places, such as Sirte, the hometown of Colonel Gaddafi, with the forces of the uprising holding sway over the rest of the territories.

But, in reality, no one is in control after the town of Ajdabiya, 90 minutes' drive from Benghazi. After a pause in air strikes, warplanes carried out a missile attack on an arms dump in the outskirts of the town in an effort to stop weapons falling into rebel hands. Leaders of the protest movement are increasingly convinced that opposition by Russia means a no-fly zone mooted by David Cameron, Hillary Clinton and other Western leaders will never be established.

Meanwhile, the regime's troops had been carrying out sorties in the hinterland beyond. They have been active in the village of Bisher, just outside Burayqah, the next town facing little challenge from rebels.

Adel Sharif, 30, a shopkeeper, said: "They have been coming up in about six lorries, the last time was about three days ago. They are controlling the area again. We had some volunteers [rebels] from Benghazi who went up the road but they were met by Gaddafi men and turned back without firing a shot. As far as we can see, Gaddafi's men can come straight through here and go for Benghazi, there is nothing to stop them. We see them gathering in larger numbers. We're wondering what will happen." Idris Fathi, a carpenter, added: "The situation is getting very worrying. Gaddafi's militia have taken away some men from around here. We don't think we will be seeing them again. We had some more armed men here to defend the area but they have now gone. We had heard that a lot of soldiers of the Libyan army have changed sides but we have not seen any of them come to fight the other side."

Six men, carrying an assortment of weapons from ageing Kalashnikovs to hunting rifles, made up the "volunteer" force in Burayqah. Hassan bin Jawad, 19, declared he was ready to be a shaheed (martyr) to rid his country of the tyrant. "We are going to march to Tripoli and free our capital," he said. "We are prepared to die for the people."

Mr bin-Jawad, who carried a fragile-looking shotgun, had to overcome one problem before undertaking his mission. "My mother thinks I should go back to my studies before joining the war," he added. "I am a bit worried myself because the college has been shut for a while now and we are all behind with our courses."

The only other armed presence in the area is provided by the Petroleum Protection Force, which guards the oil and gas facilities in the area. Haatem Morzak, an officer in the force, shrugged when asked whether it would offer any challenge to the regime's gunmen. "We are neutral in this," he said. "Our job is to protect the facilities on both sides of the lines and we must keep doing that. But yes, if they [regime troops] decide to come through then they have a clear path." The local population are keeping their options open. Across the road from the main police station in Burayqah hangs not the red, green and black flag, the old monarchist banner which has become a symbol of the current revolution, but a number of green flags of Libya under the Gaddafi regime.

The police station does fly the colours of the new order, but the mood inside is anything but confident. The officer supposedly in charge was anxious to say "there are no police here, they are not involved in politics, the people and we are in charge", before hurriedly removing his police hat.

Abu Bakr Astardi, a 33-year-old petrochemicals engineer, explained: "Everyone is very worried about spies. Who knows what will be used against who in the future? People are against Gaddafi, but the longer he stays in power the more nervous they become."

Mr Astardi works for Sirte Oil, which produces about 48 per cent of all gas and oil-derived products for Libya. But the wells are no longer operating. The main gates to Sirte's headquarters were shut and the two senior executives were not around. A watchman said they had received a visit three days ago from some men from the Gaddafi-controlled west. The plant now flew six green regime flags.