The rebels dig in for a long fight: 'We will stay here until we die'

Catrina Stewart reports from the bunkers protecting the resistance from air attacks
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The Independent Online

Stepping gingerly over an anti-personnel mine left on the floor of a weapons bunker, a rebel guard casually points out the anti-tank missiles, piled haphazardly on top of each other.

It was these bunkers which Libyan pilots attempted to bomb three days ago – but missed – when Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the country's embattled leader, embarked on an offensive into rebel-held territory in eastern Libya.

In this abandoned army base, a vast complex in the desert west of Ajdabiya, more than a dozen bunkers are crammed with missiles, grenades, tank shells, mines and much more. In one bunker, the guard casually gestures to a crate of white cylindrical containers he claims contain radioactive material.

In the hands of a trained army, it would be a formidable arsenal. In the hands of a volunteer army, its usefulness is more debatable. The ragtag group that guards the base, a mix of civilians and soldiers, is not even sure they have anything to fire the weapons, blaming looters who broke into the base when the town fell a week-and-a-half ago.

Nevertheless, such concerns have done little to dent their enthusiasm. "This is the front line of the eastern part of Libya," says Ali Mohammed, a guard and one of thousands to defect from Colonel Gaddafi's army after Libya's eastern capital Benghazi fell to rebel protesters. "We will stay here until we die."

And die they might. In the days that followed the uprising in the east – an impeccably executed assault that routed Gaddafi's forces after several days of fighting – the Libyan leader has dug in, surrounding himself with die-hard loyalists and elite guards in Tripoli.

Yesterday, the regime launched a land and air offensive in the country's east at dawn and briefly captured Brega, before being driven back. People in Ajdabiya, 40 miles to the east, fear pro-Gaddafi forces will target them next. Hundreds are taking up positions on the road into the city, armed with guns and a few rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Few Libyans dare entertain the possibility Gaddafi will remain in power, but the early momentum that swept across the country, starting in the east, appears to be faltering, and some of the protesters admit it could take weeks, and more bloodshed before the Libyan leader is eventually ousted.

Senior military officers who have defected from Gaddafi are firm that this is a people's revolution, which should be finished by the people, and not the military.

"We have a good force, but we can't use it. We are talking peace, we are not fighting," said Colonel Nasser Busneina, one of several air force commanders to defect to the opposition in recent days. "We don't want to turn the revolution into a military battle between two sides."

Experts agree Gaddafi still commands the loyalty of sufficient numbers of troops, among them militias and mercenaries, to inflict massive damage on Libya's population.

In Benghazi, opposition forces have formed a military council, the first step towards creating a unified force capable of challenging Gaddafi. But so far, at least, there are no formal plans to march on the capital.

Volunteers, many of them civilians with no military experience, are being trained in rudimentary weapon skills, and many of them plan to drive towards Tripoli to take part in a final push against Gaddafi. A first group has already set out on the 600-mile journey, according to Idris el Sharif, a member of the new security committee in Benghazi. But there were reports some of them had run into loyalist forces near Sirte, the regime's stronghold, and been badly beaten and forced to retreat.