Friday, August 5, 2011

Battle of Tiji - Crossroads to Tripoli

Rebels watch Gadhafi troops from ancient lookout
By Michael Holmes, CNN

August 5, 2011 -- Updated 0318 GMT (1118 HKT)

Nafusa Mountains, Libya (CNN) -- The lonely ridge that tops the Nafusa Mountains has been used for centuries as a lookout point, a place where enemies are watched.

Two thousand years ago, Berber men would sit in a stone lookout over the majestic brown plains, watching for strangers or enemies approaching their villages.

Today, their ancestors use the same ridgeline to watch over their own enemies -- the forces of Moammar Gadhafi entrenched in the dusty city of Tiji below.

Tarek Zambou was an intelligence officer in those forces, until the revolt began and he defected, returning home to the town of Kabaw, a few kilometers from where he now stands. He commands the area's Military Council.

Today he stands on the windswept point next to a solitary tank standing sentry and points to Taji, nine kilometers away but clearly visible across the flat desert plain.
"It is a very important place for us to take," he said. "And we will take it, no problem."

He says if Taji and then the smaller town of Bader a few kilometers to the east are taken there will be little between his men and the doorstep of Tripoli.

The rebels made significant advances last week, sweeping off the mountain high ground to the plains, and capturing half a dozen towns and cities.

That advance stopped at Tiji, the city now sealed off by rebels on three sides. The fourth, to the northeast, is the way to Tripoli.

Zambou says his men prodded forward and engaged Gadhafi forces on the city's outskirts earlier this week, withdrawing when they saw civilians inside. They had believed most, if not all, had fled.

"In this situation we're facing a big problem," he said. "Gadhafi is using people as a human shield, and we don't want to hurt civilians."

But he says patience is wearing thin. Multiple warnings have been sent to civilians inside Tiji, telling them to leave, and leave soon.

"We (will) go in. We (will) try as we can to avoid the civilian people but we should go (in). Because we give them the chance," he said.

During our visit to this historic observation post, we heard anti-aircraft fire coming from the city.

"No problem," Zambou calls out to our crew, trying to be reassuring. "They see us and they shoot, but the ammunition they shoot won't reach here. I like to hear it -- it means they're wasting bullets."

We follow Zambou's car down the winding mountain road, closer to Tiji, our crew still marveling at the brutal yet spectacular terrain.

Three rebel fighters sit beneath a flapping tarpaulin, peering down the deserted road to the besieged city.

There's another rebel position two more kilometers down the road, Zambou tells us. A Grad rocket killed three of his fighters there recently.

We tell him we want to go to that final post, to interview the men there, but Zambou refuses.
"No, too dangerous - the road is very exposed on the way there," he said. "Gadhafi troops will see you and probably fire with anti-aircraft guns, maybe rockets.

"I'm not worried about you," he added. "But the rockets could hit my men. Don't go."
We don't, and so we return to Kabaw.

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