Libyan rebels are mobilising soldiers who have defected from the country's largely disbanded army, amid fears that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi will recapture towns in the east that fell to the opposition three weeks ago.
The development marks a dramatic shift in strategy away from a popular uprising towards a military conflict that could mire the country in a bloody and protracted civil war.
"Gaddafi has no legitimacy, he is breaking international law, he is committing crimes against humanity," said Khaled al-Sa'ayah, a spokesman for the opposition's newly formed military council in Benghazi, Libya's second city and rebel base. "We can no longer protest peacefully against him. We have to take up arms to protect our people."
The provisional councils have apparently quarrelled over whether to use the army to defend the gains of its popular revolt which broke out in mid-February. Many government soldiers defected to the rebels, while others simply put down their weapons. Some fled to Tripoli soon after the uprising started. The argument appears to have shifted in favour of those favouring a military response after pro-Gaddafi troops mounted a surprise fightback on rebel-held territory earlier this week.
The military has, as a body, stood aside while volunteer fighters – many of them unarmed or picking up a gun for the first time – raced to meet advancing loyalist troops. But what they lack in fighting skills and inferior arms they have made up for in enthusiasm, so far repelling attempted advances by government troops.
Yet it seems the rebels are unwilling to rely on such luck for long amid indications that pro-Gaddafi forces will fight bitterly to control the strategic town of Brega, which is the site of a key oil terminal and an airport – and would provide a launching pad for an assault on Benghazi, just 125 miles away.
"We are mobilising the army because we want professional soldiers. They [the volunteers] had to fight in the last two or three days," said Ahmed Jibril, a spokesman for the opposition's governing National Libyan Council.
"But whether to move towards the west and Tripoli, that has not been decided yet." The Libyan rebels will also form a military high command, a critical step in forming a genuine leadership structure, which will include former high-ranking and experienced officers, Mr Sa'ayah said.
It was unclear how many of the dispersed soldiers will rejoin an armed forces loyal to the opposition, but the official suggested they could count on more than 6,000 troops. He ruled out using fighter jets stationed at Benghazi's air base, saying that air strikes would be avoided "at all costs". The rebels have, however, asked for UN air strikes against regime strongholds.
Asked whether mobilising the military would push the country towards a civil war, Mr Sa'ayah said, "no, absolutely not". But it is arguably already there, with large parts of the nation in an armed revolt against Colonel Gaddafi's 42-year rule. The Libyan leader's assault this week on Brega has alarmed Libyans, many of whom were certain that he would be unable to cling to power once the rebellion spread beyond eastern Libya.
In Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi's seat of power, the dictator's loyalist militias have largely kept a lid on dissent, unlike in Benghazi, where several army units defected to the opposition after witnessing a brutal crackdown that left hundreds of protesters dead.
But there are many who will be reluctant about giving too much power to the military, which officials have tried to stress is subordinate to the civilian command."We are trying to keep the military within a civil framework," Iman Bugaighis, a spokeswoman for the rebels, said. "We don't want a military coup, we have tried that before."
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