Saturday, June 11, 2011
The March to Tripoli Resumes
Rebel gains spark fierce battle for west of Libya, as Gaddafi regime under pressure from all sides
A renewed battle for the west of Libya could end the month-long stalemate in the struggle between Colonel Gaddafi's ugly regime and the rebels fighting for control.
By Nick Meo, Tripoli 7:30PM
In the Jebel Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli, lightly-armed mountain farmers drove Gaddafi forces out of a string of villages - some of which had refused bribes to support the Libyan leader - forcing them to retreat to within 60 miles of the capital.
In Misurata, emboldened rebels prepared to break out of the enclave where they had been besieged for weeks by launching a series of probing attacks on Zlitan, the next town to their west.
On Saturday, in a move that startled the government, rebel forces began an assault on the oil port of Zawiya, halfway between the Tunisian border and the capital - leading to the first major fighting in the city since opposition forces there were crushed by Gaddafi troops in March.
The coastal road towards Zawiya from the capital was blocked by soldiers and loyalist gunmen with assault rifles, rushing to prevent the rebels from pushing further east.
There were rumours that government forces were preparing their own onslaught on the rebel-held border town of Wazin, and Gaddafi troops continued to bombard Misurata in an effort to throttle the rebel breakout, killing 31 in a single day on Friday.
But the rebels confidently hope that eventually they will be able to push into Tripoli, Gaddafi's capital city, where key military targets are being pounded daily by Nato warplanes in their heaviest blitz since the air campaign began.
All over Western Libya – where the uprising was crushed brutally in March – there were signs that the rebels are taking the initiative. They hope that, with Nato's backing, they will soon wear down Gaddafi's forces and eventually bring down his regime.
The effect of the bombing in Tripoli last week has been extraordinary. There are no warning sirens, no drone of approaching aircraft, no whistle of falling bombs or hammering anti-aircraft fire. Instead for an instant there was unearthly moaning from the warplanes flying high over the city and then sudden huge explosions, terrifyingly loud. They lit up the Tripoli night sky with blinding flashes of light followed by shock waves which shook buildings and rattled windows for miles around.
"At first it was horrible for the children when the Nato bombs started falling, but they have got used to it a bit now," said one middle-aged man in a hurried exchange outside a grocery shop on Thursday morning after another sleepless night of bombardment. He had the hollow-eyed look of most of the exhausted population.
Great booms were still sounding out as jets flying at will over the Libyan capital of two million people pounded more targets on the outskirts, although like everyone else on the half-empty streets the man hardly flinched as bombs exploded in the distance.
"I don't think we will have to put up with this much longer - there will be a change soon," he said with a grin, hurrying away before anyone saw him chatting to a foreign journalist.
His heavy hint that he believed Colonel Gaddafi will soon be gone came after a week of the most intense air attacks since Nato's campaign began three months ago and multiplying predictions that the end is nearing for the Brother Leader.
There were signs everywhere that everyday life was becoming tougher under the Colonel's fraying rule.
Petrol now costs £3.50 a litre, compared to 13p a year ago, food is still plentiful but prices have rocketed to levels never seen before, and random, unexplained gunshots ring out in the city at night. Many of those who can afford to have packed up their possessions and children into their family saloon cars and fled 100 miles to the safety of Tunisia; some 6,000 crossed on Wednesday alone after Nato launched 157 air attacks in 24 hours.
They don't fear the extraordinarily accurate bombing raids so much as the prospect of a looming, bloody denouement to Gaddafi's 41-year rule.
All week Western leaders have ramped up their rhetoric about the end being near, perhaps seeking to scare Gaddafi out of power. The bombing strategy hasn't been so much shock and awe as a slow, psychological process of dropping giant bunker-buster bombs on the Libyan leader's fortified compound night after night, even though it is highly doubtful that he is in there.
In the early hours of Friday three fell in the centre of the capital where his Bab Al-Azizia compound is located, probably 2,000-pound EV Paveway III bombs. Even two miles away it feels like a minor earthquake.
"What we've been seeing is a psy-ops campaign in action," said David Hartwell, an analyst for IHS Janes. "We've been hearing Gaddafi is about to fall for several months now. In truth it is very difficult for anyone to know how close the regime really is to collapse, although when it does come it could be very sudden."
The Colonel still has plenty of devoted supporters in the capital - perhaps almost half its population, according to some estimates.
"Those Nato bastards are dropping bombs on us again," one young man said bitterly. "They are trying to kill Colonel Gaddafi, our leader." It was heartfelt anger, not the rehearsed sort wheeled out by government officials for television cameras.
Another sign of support was the hundreds of green flags fluttering from rooftops in western Libya, many on bullet-scarred buildings from recent fighting; it would have looked like a more spontaneous show of support if the flags and flagpoles hadn't all been exactly the same size.
Unlike rebel-held Benghazi in the east, where they never stop talking to you, nobody in Tripoli wants to discuss politics with a foreigner. Posters of Col Gaddafi are stuck up in every shop, making it look as if he has massive support. One shopkeeper, who looked like a supporter with three pictures of the Colonel in his window, only grunted and avoided eye contact when asked about the leader.
His people have hardly seen him for months, only occasional snatches on television of him meeting supporters in windowless rooms or brief audio tapes of ranting defiance.
By now his remaining followers really do need to love him, as he insists they do, if they are to believe the Brother Leader still has a future.
Col Gaddafi last week once again rejected the option of stepping down but there was a frightening new dark edge to his rhetoric. "Martyrdom is a million times better," he declared. "We welcome death."
Thereis little way to be sure how much force he still commands. His air force was blown up on the runway by Nato's air campaign in March and his pitiful navy was sunk at anchor. Nato estimates it has destroyed 40 per cent of his tanks and much of the logistics and support units needed to keep an army fighting.
Col Gaddafi probably still commands between 10,000 - 20,000 men, including highly-trained soldiers with elite security units, and many mercenaries as well as militias. Their morale may not be high; last week The Sunday Telegraph saw tired, sullen-looking militia men slouching at dozens of checkpoints on the way from Tunisia to the capital.
His irregular forces are an unknown quantity; but they may play more of a role in the war from now on. Last week Libyan television showed tribesmen from the town of Tawargah, armed by Gaddafi, on their way to fight the Misrata rebels.
"This is a very worrying development," said Noman Benotman, a Libyan analyst now based in London. "Setting tribe against tribe could lead to bloodletting and civil war." Mr Benotman, who once fought against the Libyan regime before renouncing violence, said he believed that the last chapter of Gaddafi is unfolding. "But I believe he may still have enough manpower to keep him in the war for months yet," he said.
There is enough food for six months and enough money too, according to Libyan officials. Billions were frozen abroad when the February uprising was brutally attacked, but Libyan officials insist the small-scale fighting does not cost much. Libya's borders are still open, and The Sunday Telegraph saw loaded with flour and fruit driving in from Tunisia last week. But most trade was done by sea, and the nation is effectively blockaded.
Fuel is in desperately short supply. Little if any oil is being produced and although the one rundown refinery can produce just enough power station fuel to meet present electricity needs, it can only manufacture enough petrol to fill the tanks of 6,000 cars a day.
The Sunday Telegraph also saw soldiers breaking up a fight at a petrol station between drivers, some of whom had probably queued for more than 24 hours. Bicycles have become a prized commodity.
Inflation is high, the dinar has devalued by 40 per cent since the crisis began, and the Central Bank has limited Libyans to withdrawing 500 dinars (£340) a month from their accounts. It spells economic trouble, though not yet crisis.
John Hamilton, a contributing editor at the African Energy newsletter, said the real test may be in August, when the weather is at its hottest and refrigerators and air conditioning units are flat out.
"At the present rate, the real crunch time won't come until the summer, which is when life is always hardest in the Arab world because of the heat," he said.
But despite everything, the Libyan government maintains a front of blustering confidence.
"The regime is stronger now than when Nato started bombing," insisted Mahmoud Hamza, a senior official. "When you are attacked in a war people stand with the leadership."