'Gaddafi's men had heavier weapons but we had more to fight for'

Rebel forces have repelled attacks by troops. By Kim Sengupta on the front line of a civil war, and Catrina Stewart in Brega

Kim Sengupta,Catrina Stewart
Friday 04 March 2011 01:00

Rebels pursuing the retreating troops of Muammar Gaddafi have set up a new frontline in regime-held territory in preparation for an offensive which they claim will significantly change the course of the conflict.

After repulsing an attack on Brega, a strategic town and oil production centre, the revolutionary forces have moved on to Agheila, 40 miles further west towards Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi's birthplace and a loyalist stronghold.

Although the outcome of what is now a civil war is far from certain, the failure of the regime to take Brega and push on to Benghazi, the capital of "Free Libya", has provided a great boost to the morale of the dissident movement.

Speaking in the capital, Tripoli, yesterday Saif al-Islam, the son of the Libyan leader, maintained that the assault was effectively a psychological measure aimed to drive the rebels away from the oil installations. "The bombs were just to frighten them to go away, not to kill them," he said. "I am talking about the harbour and the oil refinery there. Nobody would allow the militia [rebels] to control Brega. It is like allowing someone to control Rotterdam harbour in Holland."

Fifteen people, including a British citizen, Khaled Attghdi, a father of seven from Manchester, died in the attack and another 43 were injured. Children and the elderly were among the victims and Brega remains in the control of the rebels, known as the Shabaab.

Chasing the regime's contingent from Brega was particularly exhilarating for the revolutionary forces. There were, however, a number of heavy skirmishes en route, during which both sides used rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles. At one point a Mirage fighter-bomber carried out an airstrike in an attempt to halt the pursuit.

As the clashes continued between Brega and Agheila, Commander Mohammed Meghrabi led a party of fighters from the Meghrabi clan through the village of Bishir. Leaning out of the front passenger seat of his pick-up truck he exchanged fire with the pro-Gaddafi troops, forcing one of their cars – stolen at Brega, he claimed – off the road.

"This was very good for us: we showed we could defeat them and I am very proud of my men," he said. "They had heavier weapons than us but we had more to fight for. Our target is now Sirte, and that is going to be hard because these are Gaddafi's own people – the last people in Libya he would be able to depend on."

The shortcomings of the regime's troops in what was the first major offensive in the east of the country, the base of the revolution, have prompted some senior officers who had defected to the opposition to take an active role in the combat. So far the hierarchy has refrained from doing so, although groups of individual members of the armed forces have fought alongside the Shabaab.

Now, the rebels believe the experience and planning which professional soldiers can bring will tip the balance. "That is the one thing we have lacked," said Commander Meghrabi. " We need the direction, the better weapons, and then to Sirte, to Tripoli – khalas [finish]. This is all being prepared; we should be moving soon."

But Sher Balqassim, the police chief at Agheila, warned that Gaddafi's "people" had been arming their supporters to the west of the town. "We are expecting another attack soon from them. There are movements of trucks and men this way and I have to make sure the public will be safe," he said.

"This is a small place, but we have had people hurt and killed even here. They shot three young boys who were just looking after their sheep; this is the type of people we are dealing with. They say all the killings are being done by African mercenaries but I saw Libyans among Gaddafi men carrying out these kinds of terrible things."

The three boys were brothers and one of them, 14-year-old Hassan Hassan, was the youngest fatality in Wednesday's fighting. At the general hospital in Azdabiya, near Brega, his twin brother Hussein is traumatised, refusing to speak. On the next bed to him lies seven-year-old Faraj, his face swathed in bandages. The boys' father, Amran Hassan Ali, could not comprehend why this had happened. "We were minding our own business. We didn't see anything, and then suddenly the shooting started. We called friends for help, but they said 'we can't help you, we can't move.'"

Hassan was buried yesterday, within 24 hours of his death, according to Muslim custom. Mr Hassan Ali, felt he could not leave his remaining two sons to attend the funeral, something which broke his heart. "Gaddafi is no Muslim. If he was a Muslim, would he do this? Kill children?"

Besides the dead and the maimed, some children are missing. The Gaddafi forces had taken away a number of men from Brega, five of them working in management for energy companies.

Mohammed Ahmed Ishkazli was one of those driven away at gunpoint. His 23-year-old son, Awad, said: "My father is not political in any way. But the soldiers who came said that he was co-operating with the revolution to steal the oil. My father tried to explain that the contracts for the oil were signed a long time ago, and he had no idea where the money was going. But they just dragged him off.

"They said he would be returned after questioning, but we are very worried. My mother has been crying all the time. We have been calling people we know in Tripoli, but no one knows what has happened to him. We hope maybe he has been taken to Sirte and that he can be found there very soon."

But the abuse of power is not restricted to one side in this vicious war. A constant accusation by opponents of the regime is that "mercenaries" from sub-Saharan Africa have been carrying out atrocities. On many occasions, those seized – and at times beaten up, as soldiers of fortune – have been migrant workers from impoverished states, or even Libyans from the south of the country.

Three members of the regime forces captured in Brega were accused of being mercenaries. At least one had papers to show that he was Libyan, but that did not stop a crowd, which included rebel fighters, trying to attack them. The captives were dragged away by a group of Libyan soldiers who had joined the protest movement. An officer tried to calm the situation with assurances that the men would be thoroughly investigated.

Afterwards, he shook his head saying: "These people cannot accept that fellow Libyans may be carrying out attacks for Gaddafi, so they try to blame foreigners. But we have to accept that they cannot all be foreigners. This is a war among the Libyan people and there will be a lot of violence before it is over and we get rid of Gaddafi."

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