Next stop Tripoli – Libya's rebels sense victory is within reach

Pressure on Gaddafi mounts as rebels close in on Tripoli

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The Independent Online

Another town falls. Another hook of the trap around Tripoli locks into place. More die, more homes burn, the hatred deepens. But after months of savage strife, there is now a sense that the endgame is at last approaching in Libya's bloody civil war.

The latest battleground was Sabratha, an ancient city and Unesco heritage site. Yesterday I walked through its streets, now in rebel hands after prolonged and fierce fighting. This has further cut off Muammar Gaddafi's regime from its lifeline to the outside world, depriving it of food, fuel and reinforcements. "We are going to Tripoli and meet Gaddafi," shouted a rebel fighter waving his Kalashnikov. It was a battle-cry we have heard many times in the past, but now that final journey may not be too far away.

Underlining the sense of desperation and foreboding in the Libyan capital, the United Nations announced yesterday that it was mounting an emergency evacuation of the thousands of foreigners trapped there. A spokeswoman for the International Organisation for Migration stressed: "We have a very limited window of opportunity to carry out this operation because of the fighting."

The regime continued to claim that it was winning. All citizens, it was announced, would receive a reward of 500 dinars (£252) "for being steadfast". But that clearly wasn't enough for Gaddafi's former deputy, Abdel Salam Jalloud, a powerful member of the Libyan establishment who last night defected to the rebels.

Mr Jalloud arrived at the town of Zintan and held meetings with rebel commanders before flying to the opposition capital of Benghazi from where he is expected to make a television broadcast asking forces still loyal to the regime to lay down their arms.

Mr Jalloud told rebel officials that he had little trouble leaving Tripoli with his family and found most of the checkpoints around the capital abandoned.Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, said: "We reassure people that we are making progress on all fronts." He was subdued. His own brother – 25-year-old Hasan Ali – has been killed in the town of Zawiyah, supposedly in an attack carried out by a Nato helicopter gunship.

Another young life lost among many this week. The rebels are, however, still suffering setbacks. They are not in total control of Zawiyah, where the regime's forces have kept up a barrage of rocket and mortar fire. There were accounts, unconfirmed, that cluster bombs have been used. The Tripoli forces also drove the opposition out of Zlitan, near Misrata, in a surprise assault. But overall the mood of the revolutionaries is one of confidence, and it is extremely difficult to foresee Colonel Gaddafi achieving a military victory.

The overwhelming game-changer in the war has been international support for the rebels. There had been much publicity about foreign mercenaries being employed by the Gaddafi regime, including, supposedly, a crack team of female Ukrainian snipers, but, myths aside, his few hired guns were never remotely a match for Western firepower.

Last night in the town of Zintan, south-west of Tripoli, half a mile from a hall where volunteers were queuing to get arms along with their ration of petrol for the final push, another much smaller group was meeting. It was a group of Western men in unmarked combat clothing, watchful, carrying guns. They were shy to speak to me and would not say who they were. According to rebel fighters, the current success in the field has been due to the planning carried out by these "advisers".

But it is the six months of pulverising bombing by Nato, with the regime's antiquated air defences able to offer little resistance, which has caused so much damage. In Sabratha, three days of clashes ended when "Mr Nato came and fired six missiles at seven o'clock in the morning. Boom, boom, boom and it was all over," recalled Akram Ramadan with a smile. "Oh yes, we are all very grateful to Mr Nato here."

Mr Ramadan, 43, is a former vehicle MOT test inspector from Manchester, one among many from the Libyan diaspora abroad who came and joined the revolution. He and his comrades found aspects of regime forces in Sabratha troubling. "There were some mercenaries, but, do you know, there were also many volunteers for Gaddafi. Not foreigners, but Libyans from all over the country."

Did this mean that the war would continue after the fall of Tripoli, with blood feuds settled, I asked. "We do not want that, too many people have died." He shook his head. "We have to convince these people that they have a place in free and democratic Libya.

"This is something we must do urgently. We have also got to do something about law and order. A lot of these government properties are getting looted: they are taking generators, air-conditioning units, anything not nailed down. Who's going to control these people?"

Adem Husseini, 40, also from Manchester, foresaw a period of turbulence after Colonel Gaddafi and his regime are driven from power. "I am going to go back to the UK after the job is done, but I am not going to bring my family for the next three years. There are too many men with guns – a lot of them very young. I am talking about heavy weapons. Some people even have their own private tanks.

"We are fighting for freedom. History will record we were on the right side. But we are going to go through a very risky time."

In truth, this revolution has followed a turbulent path. I arrived in Benghazi in February to witness the shackles being torn off after four decades of dictatorship, beckoning a bright and brave new beginning. But, a month on, amid dreadful suffering, and with no help from the international community, the uprising looked to be heading for a bloody and tragic end. There was fear of the retribution that would follow. The regime's tanks came into Benghazi on a Saturday morning, and, as bodies were ferried out, the crowd around me cried: "Where is Nato?" "Where is Obama, Sarkozy, Cameron?" "Do they want our children and women to die?"

The air strikes started that afternoon and I saw the devastating results. A terrible scene of death and desolation unfolded on a field edged with wild flowers. Some of the faces expressed the horrors of the last moments; others lay peaceful, in repose. Around them were the remains of the tanks and artillery of Colonel Gaddafi's army, destroyed within an hour of its first contact with Western military might.

But the long war the Libyan leader vowed continued, with the rebels in the east incapable of taking advantage of the path cleared for them by Nato, to a large extent due to their own incompetence. The opposition administration, the Transitional National Council (TNC) formed in Benghazi, was soon enmeshed in factionalism which reached a vicious climax in the murder of the commander of the rebel forces, Abdel Fatah Younes, by his own side.

But the bombing, international sanctions and shortages were severely fraying the regime. A senior official who had resigned from the Foreign Ministry in Tripoli, but had not defected, confided during a visit to London that strenuous efforts were being made to persuade Colonel Gaddafi to relinquish power, but matters were being complicated by the issuing of an arrest warrant for him by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Despite rounds of talks, no deal was done and people at the front line now are envisaging what life would be like after 42 years of Colonel Gaddafi's rule. There were aspects of a "year zero" situation when he seized power in 1969 and one of the by-products of this was the curtailment of the study of history.

Standing at the ruins of an amphitheatre in Sabratha, looking out on the remains of Roman and Phoenician monuments beside the ocean, Sifakies Faties, a 20-year-old student and rebel fighter said: "Do you know we have been taught next to nothing of this. Isn't it magnificent? For many of us, one of the things our new future will do is allow us to learn about our past."

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