Friday, July 22, 2011

Student Warriors

Student Warriors

Libyan rebel forces on the front line outside Misrata have one powerful weapon in their fight against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's well-armed troops - self-confidence and high morale.

It's not often that you find yourself caught up in a real-life metaphor that seems so ludicrously appropriate as to become almost a cliche.

But that's exactly what happened when, on a recent trip to speak to the rebels about the stalemate on their front line, our car got stuck in the sand. We had been bumping our way through the dunes just inland from the coast.

Our escort was a commander by the name of El Hadi, a softly spoken man with intelligent eyes and a bushy black beard. He was taking us to see his encampment, high on the brow of a hill, overlooking territory held by Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

Suddenly our 4x4 was stuck, its wheels spinning pointlessly in the sand, angrily throwing up dust and bits of buried shrapnel. The more the wheels chewed up the ground, the deeper our car sank.

This, I thought, was not a comfortable place to be. Col Gaddafi's men were dug in just over the brow of the hill. The lull in the fighting we had so fortuitously stumbled upon was already coming to an end. The thuds of falling rockets sounded ever closer by. And from somewhere not far off, someone was loosing off rounds from a machine gun.

After much fruitless digging and cursing, we were finally rescued by a couple of teenagers in a pickup truck with an anti-aircraft gun welded to the back. They pulled us backwards out of our rut, and we were able to move forward again.

But we only drove another 50m or so, before our guide stopped again. This was as far as we could go, he said. Beyond lay hostile territory.

We parked on top of the hill, feeling exposed on all sides, and began to walk towards the camp.

Farmers and lawyers

Until last week, this position was held by Col Gaddafi's soldiers. For a month and a half the two sides had shelled and rocketed each other from fixed positions, neither managing to take any ground off the other. Then, at the beginning of last week, the rebels had made a co-ordinated dash forward, pushing Col Gaddafi's troops back. The rebels then dug in and held their ground.

It felt like the stalemate had been broken. Despite heavy losses, the fighters were ecstatic - finally things seemed to be moving again.

In actual fact though, the line had shifted only a short distance, and the momentum seems to have stalled.

We found El Hadi's fighters lounging up against a sandbank, sheltering from the sun and the bullets, eating spaghetti out of tin-foil containers.
Before the revolution started, El Hadi had been an importer of car tyres. Now he has around 600 men under his command.

These are not soldiers. They are farmers and lawyers, students and engineers. But what they lack in experience, they more than make up for in courage and commitment.

"Every day I am more determined to stand here and fight until the end," said Siddique, as he pointed to a ditch where less than 24 hours previously, four of his comrades had been killed when a mortar landed right on top of them.

Until last month, this shy 24-year-old maths student had never held a gun before in his life. And yet, he said, he wasn't scared.

"We will win eventually," he said, "But in order to achieve this, we have to make sacrifices."

Self-belief and determination have proved to be the rebels' most powerful weapons against Col Gaddafi's heavy artillery and long-range rockets.

Hugs and kisses

But what a job it must be for El Hadi, the commander, to try to instil military discipline in hundreds of young men, some quiet like Siddique, others brash and loud - daredevils who like to stand up above the defensive sand-banks and shout

El Hadi looked embarrassed by the question. He pushed my microphone away and looked round at his men.

"I don't want to play the boss in front of them," he said. "We're all in this together as equals."

At Misrata's military HQ, fighters greet each other not with salutes, but with bear-hugs, kisses, and cries of "Allahu Akbar" - "God is Great".

There's a frantic atmosphere of energy and industry. Everyone is busy, but no-one seems to know what anyone else is up to.

And yet, somehow, it seems to be working. Close your eyes and you might almost imagine yourself in Petrograd during the Russian revolution, watching a new order struggling to establish itself.

Libyan rebels in Zlitan capture key government commander

General Abdul Nabih Zayid arrested during rebel advance and being questioned over Misrata civilian killings, says opposition

Libyan rebels in Misrata say they have captured the chief of operations of government forces in Zlitan on the first day of their offensive against the town.
General Abdul Nabih Zayid was caught late on Wednesday after advancing fighters overran his command post at Souk Talat, a small village on the outskirts of Zlitan, opposition commanders said.

"We have him in custody, he is being well looked after," said Mohamed Frefr, in charge of detainees for the rebels. "After three days talking with him we will hand him to the military prison."

Rebels in the besieged coastal city said the general was being interviewed by intelligence officers and well looked after, with supplies of insulin procured because he is a diabetic.

A member of the Misrata Military Council, Hassan Duwa, said the general was captured as rebel units advanced towards Zlitan late on Wednesday. "He was in his house, 11 guys surrounded the house."

His capture is regarded as a major feather in the cap for rebel forces. The general gained notoriety among rebels when he helped co-ordinate the deployment of tanks into the streets of Misrata in March, triggering two months of street fighting that saw much of the city wrecked and hundreds killed.

Misrata's war crimes investigators say the general, who was operations officer at the city garrison before the war, is a "person of interest" for his role in what they say were widespread an systematic attacks against civilians.

Khalid Alwafi, a lawyer for Misrata's Human Rights Activists Association, made up of volunteer Libyan lawyers, which is assembling evidence it hopes can later be used by the international criminal court, said: "For sure we need to interview him. There are lots of questions that need answers from him."

Rebel units say they are on the outskirts of Zlitan and deploying around the town. The offensive has been launched simultaneously with a push by forces on the eastern front to capture the key oil town of Brega.

Both offensives have been augmented by heavy Nato air strikes over the past few days, with alliance aircraft flying over Misrata on Wednesday night. Loud explosions could be heard from behind the frontline.

In a sign that government forces may be feeling the strain, Libya's state television channel on Thursday morning broadcast an appeal for volunteers to join the army. An announcer told viewers there were vacancies in all units, including special forces, and that soldiers would be well paid.

Several rebel commanders in Misrata have told the Guardian in recent days that pro-Gaddafi forces are running short of manpower.

The twin attacks are as much political as military, with the rebel National Transitional Council, based in Benghazi, keen to demonstrate that it can break a six-week stalemate and gain the initiative.

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