Thursday, March 3, 2011

Volunteer Rebels at Bengazi

BENGHAZI, Libya — Mohammed Agori placed an AK-47 and a few crates of ammunition in the trunk of his Honda Civic and slammed it shut.

By Kevin Frayer, AP
Libyan rebels fire a rocket launcher as they battle government forces outside Bin Jawwad on Sunday. Army helicopter gunships fired on a rebel force moving toward the capital.

"We're ready," Agori, a 35-year-old factory worker, said before breaking into a grin and heading off to war.

Agori, who had volunteered at a recruiting center here a day earlier, was a conscript in the Libyan army in 1995. That makes him one of the more experienced volunteers.

The hodgepodge of forces arrayed against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi appears made up of mostly young volunteers armed with weapons seized from storehouses. These forces have battled government forces to a standstill in several cities.

On Sunday, forces loyal to Gadhafi used helicopter gunships and artillery and rockets to halt the advance of rebels toward Sirte, a city about 250 miles east of the capital, Tripoli.

In Misrata, 120 miles east of Tripoli, Abubakr al-Misrati, a doctor at Misrata hospital, said that 20 people were killed and 100 wounded when pro-Gadhafi troops punched into the city with mortars and tanks. They were pushed out five hours later by rebel forces, witnesses told the Associated Press.

Gadhafi's regime fought all weekend to take control of Zawiya, west of Tripoli — where his forces hit rebel positions with tanks and mortars just 30 miles from the capital.

Residents told the AP that rebels still held the city at nightfall.

The shock and speed of the rebellion, which began Feb 15, has been opposed by a well-armed force of Gadhafi loyalists made up of mercenaries, militias and military, but the level of training of the pro-Gadhafi forces is unclear. Thousands of Gadhafi's soldiers defected, and large swaths of the eastern portion of the country have fallen under rebel control.
Rebels now are attempting to strike at the heart of Gadhafi's power near the capital and in key cities along the way while holding onto their gains in the east, a tough task for a force put together so quickly.

By Kevin Frayer, AP

Smoke rises from heavy shelling Sunday as Libyan rebels retreat during a battle with forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in eastern Libya.

"It's not an organized army," Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebels' provisional government in Benghazi, said of the rebel forces. "And they'll be facing an organized army."

In Benghazi, what the rebels lack in training and weaponry they make up for in enthusiasm.
At the recruiting center in what has become the capital of rebel-held Libya, about 120 volunteers sat in neat rows in a former military barracks. An instructor went over the basics of hand-to-hand combat. When he was done, he was besieged by a throng of volunteers who were more interested in knowing when they would get weapons and head to the front than in learning about martial arts.

"They want to go now," said instructor Khamis Singri, 38.

Some will head toward Sirte, halfway between Benghazi and Tripoli and the birthplace of Gadhafi. Rebel leaders said the battle for Sirte could be decisive because it clears a path to Tripoli, where Gadhafi is holed up.

"We believe Sirte will fall, but we don't know when," said Idris Laga, the military coordinator for the provisional government organized in recent weeks.

Laga said the rebel forces number about 25,000, though he said it is hard to know the real number. He said he believes Gadhafi has 60,000 troops. Though the rebel force includes commanders and soldiers who defected from the Libyan army, rebel leaders acknowledge the defectors don't bring a lot of experience or leadership.

That is because most in Libya's army were forced to serve and were poorly trained and equipped. Gadhafi took power 41 years ago in a military coup, and he kept his army disorganized to keep the same thing from happening to him.

"Gadhafi undermined it," Gheriani said of the army. "They're really civilians in military garb."

Most officers were not given much responsibility or prestige. "Gadhafi never built leadership," Gheriani said.

Laga said the rebels have some experienced commanders, several of whom served in wars in Chad and Uganda or helped the Muslim militant group Hezbollah fight the Israelis in Lebanon.

Conventional military training of the type received in the Libyan army or that Gadhafi's forces get may not be valuable in this type of war anyway, he said.

"This is not a classic war," he said. "It's a street fight."

Rebel forces say they have an advantage because they are fighting for democracy.

"We have a cause to die for, while his people don't," Gheriani said.

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