'We needed foreign help – but now Libyans must end all this in Tripoli'

Kim Sengupta
Monday 21 March 2011 01:00 GMT

The bodies lay strewn, dismembered and burnt. 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 Muammar Gaddafi's army, destroyed in an hour of pulverising and relentless air strikes.

A terrible scene of desolation unfolded on a field edged with pretty wild flowers.

The regime's offensive against the rebels had not survived the first contact with the military might of the West. It remains to be seen whether these were the first shots of the "long war" vowed by the enraged dictator in Tripoli. But for now plans to reconquer land in the east lost to the revolution were in ashes.

In less than 24 hours the loyalist forces have been driven from forward positions in Benghazi to the outskirts of Ajdabiya, the town whose capture was viewed as making it a near certainty that the capital of "Free Libya" would fall. Instead, they were now in chaotic retreat, offering the rebels the unexpected chance to take the war to their enemy's heartland.

Colonel Gaddafi's troops appeared to have taken no action to protect themselves from what was about to befall. Perhaps they were unaware of the ultimatum given by the international community. They were caught; vulnerable; in the open; and what was left afterwards resembled a ghastly montage in miniature of the carnage on the road to Basra when American and British warplanes bombed Iraqi forces fleeing from Kuwait.

In their panic, many of the soldiers had left engines running in their tanks and trucks as they fled across fields. Some raided farmhouses on the way to swap their uniforms for civilian clothes. But others did not make it, their corpses burning with their vehicles or torn apart by spraying shrapnel as they ran to get away.

The rebels, the Shabaab, seemed initially yesterday to be too surprised by the enormity of what had taken place to take advantage of the enemy's rout. Their fighters lingered for long periods, having their photographs taken with the armour, now shredded metal, which had inspired so much trepidation in recent battles. Some fetched their families to join them.

Eventually there was a disorganised push by a handful, in just half a dozen cars, towards where the enemy had fallen back. At Ajdabiya Gate, leading into the town, The Independent witnessed loyalist troops regrouping to carry out an ambush, killing two of their pursuers and capturing three others. But by early evening a convoy of around 50 vehicles was heading towards the new front line with the rebel commanders confident that their demoralised opponents would not put up a fight.

The next stops for the revolutionary forces, maintained Captain Fayyad Bakri, would be Brega, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, towns recently lost to the regime, and then Sirte, the birthplace of Gaddafi and a loyalist stronghold.

"After that we shall be going to Tripoli," he declared. "Although there may already be a revolt there by then. People will rise up against this evil man now they see he cannot get away with terrorising people. We accept we could not have done this without foreign help, especially from the French, and we are very grateful. But... there must be a Libyan end to this."

However, while rebel forces had the upper hand in Benghazi, the regime mounted a new assault on Misrata, 150km east of Tripoli, despite being on the receiving end of coalition air strikes. Tanks and soldiers entered the town centre and snipers on rooftops opened fire. Mohammed Abdelbaset, a rebel official said: "There are so many casualties we simply cannot count them." Boats blockaded the port preventing medicine and food getting through.

US and British warships had launched 110 Tomahawk missiles against air defences around Tripoli and Misrata. The regime claimed 48 people died and 115 were injured, casualties condemned by the Arab League whose support for a no-fly zone has been crucial in underpinning Western military action. In Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi promised a "long, drawn-out war with no limits" warning his Western enemies: "We shall live and you shall die."

But the fate of his soldiers did not bear out that confident prediction. Around 20 of the men he sent on the Benghazi expedition who did not live had fallen on the scrubby grass at Theeka. Just after dawn the place had been attacked by missiles from the air, tearing turrets off tanks. For the soldiers there was no escape. Three of them were huddled together, as if afraid to be alone when the end came.

Some of the Shabaab were shocked by the human cost of what had taken place. "This is a different kind of war. I am sorry that so many people had died in this way. I was fighting against them only yesterday, but I am still sorry," said 27-year-old Khalil Tahini, an engineer from Tobruk who had joined the revolution.

"It is the fault of Gaddafi and his sons for sending these young men to fight us while they stay, well-guarded, in Tripoli. But look at him: he is somebody's son, a poor mother, a wife, children would be crying," he added, gently covering the face of the man on the ground with a torn blanket. His companion, Jawad Abdullah Hussein murmured: "May Allah give them peace. We all want an end to all this."

But there were others who stripped money and watches from corpses. A teenager exultantly cried "Allah hu Akhbar" repeatedly as he stood over the body of a fallen soldier, scarcely older than him, legs blown away. Groups of Shabaab, who had repeatedly fled before the regime's forces in the last few weeks, fired volleys of anti-aircraft rounds into the air to celebrate "their victory". Many of the tanks, some of the fighters explained, had really been taken out by the rebel air force. In fact both its planes had been shot down in consecutive weeks by the rebel's own fire from the ground.

Four soldiers had burst into Ali Abdulwahab's home near Sultan. He had run out of the back as they opened fire. "They stole some things, but they also left their uniforms and put on our clothes. I caught a glimpse of one of their faces, he looked frightened," he said. "I was cursing them not just for stealing things but because they had caused deliberate damage by shooting at the walls and smashing windows. But I am alive. My neighbour was shot. He is in hospital. I do not curse these dead men now. I curse Gaddafi."

Walla, in Benghazi, renamed the "Martyr's Clinic", had been one of the front line hospitals dealing with casualties since the uprising began on 17 February. The latest emergency had come on Saturday when regime forces launched their attack on Benghazi.

The 32nd death from that took place yesterday: 27-year-old Amer Qassim, who had suffered chest wounds when a rocket smashed into a house in the Gar Yunis area. "He was from Brega. If the Gaddafi men keep falling back he could have been back home in a few days," said Dr Selim al-Ghani. "He came to Benghazi to be safe and he died here. Most of the fatalities we had this time were civilians. A lot of the shooting and firing of shells were at random. It was vicious."

Dr al-Ghani received an urgent call: a patient had been brought in with gunshot wounds. "It is a man who they say was infiltrated into the city by the government to carry out attacks," he said. "He was shot when he was being arrested. I do not know if this is accurate," the doctor shrugged. "There is a lot of bitterness in Benghazi which results in cases like this. And soon we shall start receiving casualties when the rebels go forward. This war is not over."

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