Regime hits back as rebels push on to Gaddafi's heartland

Air strikes halt advance to symbolic city of Sirte. Kim Sengupta reports on front line at Bin Jawad crossing
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The Independent Online

The two jets swooped low and fast, the missiles exploding nearby and forcing those on the road to dive for cover. Artillery shells and mortar rounds landed in salvos as dark plumes of smoke rose from burning buildings in the background. For the rebels of Libya, the road to Sirte was proving to be a violent and perilous journey.

Sirte has a highly symbolic as well as strategic significance in this brutal conflict. The city is the birthplace of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, where members of his clan had vowed to fight to the bitter end. The fall of this loyalist stronghold would be seen as a body blow to the regime and provide a huge boost to the morale of the revolution, while, at the same time, opening the way to the capital, Tripoli.

After repulsing the regime's attempt to recapture Brega, a major petrochemicals centre, the emboldened opposition militia had seized the oil port of Ras Lanuf and then, within a day, had walked into Bin Jawad, a garrison town with Gaddafi's troops seemingly retreating in disarray and defeat.

Sirte was the next stop and with it the chance to relieve Misrata and Zawiya, where protesters are being pounded by the regime. There were congratulations from the capital of "Free Libya", Benghazi, to the militant fighters, the Shabaab, while leaders of a recently set up provisional administration talked of declaring themselves the new government of the country.

Messages sent to the Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte warned that their nemesis was now only 100 miles away and offering reconciliation in return for a peaceful handover of the city.

But yesterday, the regime struck back. Rebels claimed to have repelled attacks in the western towns of Zawiya and Misrata. And in the east, Gaddafi forces launched one of the fiercest, sustained bombardments of the campaign with tanks, rockets, mortars, rifles and anti-aircraft artillery used as ground weapons while fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships carried out sorties above.

"They are killing, killing us, we need help," shouted Ibrahim Waleed, from the back of a flatbed truck streaming back from Bin Jawad. "Gaddafi is cutting us to pieces, we cannot hit back." The 23-year-old teacher was one of the many volunteers, almost all untrained, who had taken up arms for the cause. They had revelled in the easy victories of the past week, but were now tasting real fear. Yunus Khwasi, an unemployed engineer, said quietly: "I have seen many men die today. Also children and also women, some of them were torn by heavy weapons."

Behind them, in Bin Jawad, 300 Shabaab fighters were cornered. Rebel fighters desperately urged their commanders to mount another counter-attack to save their comrades. Up to another 50 had died as they fought surrounded by regime troops, they said.

Last night, as defences were being shored up in Ras Lanuf, where the rebels had retreated, questions were being asked in the ranks about why things had gone so wrong and doubts expressed about the tactics employed.

Certainly, the change of fortune had been rapid and unexpected. The Independent had arrived on Saturday at Bin Jawad to find the town empty of regime forces and a group of men waiting patiently at the gate to welcome the rebels.

Mohammed Akeel, a businessman dealing in farm produce acting as the spokesman, wanted to know: "Where is the revolution army? We need them here. No one here like the government, this is a very poor area, and they have done nothing for us. Our country is rich, it has oil, why do we not benefit from this?"

Mr Akeel and his companions had seen retreating regime forces stream past their town. Soon afterwards, a small number outside the town had abandoned their post and disappeared. A few of the younger men at Bin Jawad said they wanted to join the Shabaab and continue on the advance.

Outside Bin Jawad, leading a detachment of rebel fighters, Major Selim Idris was confident that the tide of the conflict had turned. "The Gaddafi men are demoralised. A great many of the Libyans among them will come over to us. The others, the mercenaries, we shall deal with. Sirte, definitely, but not tonight. Tonight, we shall consolidate in Bin Jawad."

Instead, after going into the town, and celebrating with the locals with much firing in the air, the rebel fighters decided to return to Ras Lanuf. "There was not much good food at Bin Jawad, not good places to sleep, so it was decided that we come back," said Ali Abdulahi in an uneasy voice.

Yesterday morning, the Shabaab returned to Bin Jawad and into a fierce ambush. Saddam Hussein, 18, recalled: "Three women came out of their homes and started shouting at us, telling us to go away. We did not know what was happening, and then firing started all around us, they were using missiles and machine-guns. We could not turn around, the way ahead was blocked, it was very frightening." By late yesterday evening, some of the Shabaab inside Bin Jawad had managed to get away. The fate of the others remained unknown. The rebel commanders insisted that Bin Jawad would be retaken and the march to Sirte continue. "It's not difficult to take Sirte," said Colonel Bashir Abdul Gadir. "I think 70 per cent of regular people are with us there. We're going to wait till they call us to let us know when they are ready, and that will be very soon."

* One of Colonel Gaddafi's sons claimed yesterday that pro-government forces had retaken several key cities. Saadi Gaddafi said that government control had been restored in all cities except Benghazi, which remained "unstable". "Everywhere the green flag is flying and a picture of my father," he said. "There were 200,000 people celebrating in the centre of Tripoli at 6am."

Additional reporting by David Owen