Thursday, August 4, 2011
Tripoli on the Horizon
Libya's rebels prepare for critical battle on road to Tripoli
Libya's rebels say they are poised to launch an imminent attack on a strategic garrison town near Tripoli whose fall could turn the tide in their campaign against Muammar Gaddafi.
By Adrian Blomfield, Qawalish7:27PM BST 12 Jul 2011
After months of stalemate, opposition fighters have begun to make slow but steady gains in the Jebel Nafusa, a sand-swept mountain range in Libya's west that is increasingly seen as the most promising of the rebels' three principal battlefields.
The prize now lying in front of them is Garyan, a heavily fortified town whose capture would bring the rebels within 50 miles of the capital city and hand the opposition control of the main southern road leading from the capital.
The planned assault to liberate the Nafusa's biggest town represents the most ambitious offensive since the rebels finally captured Libya's third city of Misurata at the end of May.
Senior rebel commanders said they believed an attack could come "within days".
But the challenge of taking Garyan, said to be defended by thousands of Khamis brigade soldiers, is likely to prove far sterner still.
Before the rebels even reach Garyan they will first have to capture Asabiyah, the next town after Qawalish, which is also believed to be heavily fortified by pro-Gaddafi troops.
Amid growing signs of Nato impatience, with France even floating the idea of opposition negotiations with Col Gaddafi, the rebels are under growing pressure to reach a swift resolution to the five-month conflict.
But while the capture of Garyan could be pivotal, rebels do not expect to be in a position to attack Tripoli for at least a month as they seek to consolidate their gains.
On the outskirts of the town of Qawalish a toppled lamp-post pulled across a road marks the present front line in the eastern Nafusa mountains.
Rebels captured the village from Gaddafi forces last week. In the early, exuberant stages of the revolt, they might have pressed on towards Garyan, 20 miles further along the road.
But experience has taught that rapid advances can be easily reversed after supply lines become overextended.
Instead, a small but disciplined force of young men, some defecting army regulars, others fresh faced university students, defended the front line from an Italian guardhouse built during the Second World War.
"We are so much stronger than before," said Ahmed, a former army private who was among the fighters that captured the village. "We have captured new weapons and, most importantly, we are much better organised. Now we are divided into small groups, whereas people before fought however they wanted and went wherever they wanted."
But the forces ranged against the rebels are much stronger too and it was clear that the opposition's hold over Qawalish was precarious.
From a ridge just a mile away from the Italian guardhouse, regime forces have repeatedly shelled the front line and two days ago even launched an assault to recapture the outskirts of the village, only to be beaten back.
West of Qawalish, the road winding its way through a series of flyblown towns liberated by the rebels in the past six weeks bears testament to the ferocity of previous battles in this area.
Spent rounds and the abandoned uniforms of fleeing loyalist soldiers litter the roadside. Every few hundred yards, the charred shells of vehicles and the ruins of government tanks bombed by Nato warplanes lie haphazardly across the tarmac.
The towns themselves, abandoned by their inhabitants, are eerily desolate. Goats wander through burned out buildings, pockmarked with small holes left by bullets and gaping ones by shells. Occasionally, the stench of a decomposing animal carcase hangs overwhelmingly in the air.
For the rebels defending these front line towns, rocket attacks are a constant danger, relief only coming when the drone of Nato aircraft fills the air, sending Col Gaddafi's forces scurrying for cover.
But all too often, the rebels say, the Nato planes do not attack the enemy. The buzz of the aircraft could be heard for nearly an hour yesterday, but it was not accompanied by the sound of falling bombs.
"Every day there is an attack by Gaddafi forces on this town," said al-Fitouri Muftah, a rebel official in the town of Kikla. "There were 30 rocket attacks yesterday alone but most of the time Nato flies around and does nothing."
As he spoke, the deafening detonation of a grad rocket sounded nearby.
Yet most rebels in the Nafusa say they have no hope of success without Nato raids to clear enemy tanks lying in the path of their advance.
The rebels are too poorly equipped to do the job themselves. Even if they have captured considerable munitions from retreating Gaddafi forces, much of it does not work, according to Mukhtar al-Akhdar, a rebel commander who says he has resorted to the internet for instructions on how to repair malfunctioning weaponry.
A lack of fuel and cash also explains the slowness of the progress, rebels say. But they insist that if Nato sticks with them, and shows greater understanding for the pace they have adopted, they will ultimately prevail.
"If we capture Garyan," said Col Juma Ibrahim, a senior rebel commander, "it will then be easier to capture Tripoli as we would have a clear route."
Just as they do in Garyan, Col Ibrahim insists that the rebels have a plan for the capture of Tripoli, saying that sympathisers in the nearby towns of Zawiyah, Zuwara and Aziziya are primed to rise up as they close in.
But, he warns, taking the capital will only happen if Nato is prepared to raise the stakes by providing close air support in the form of helicopters that could attack buildings in which loyalist forces had taken cover.
But even if Nato quavers at the price the rebels are seeking for victory, the people of the Nafusa mountains, fighters and civilians alike, insist they will fight until Col Gaddafi is ousted and that negotiations with their hated dictator are out of the question.
"Our people have waited for 40 years," said Salim, a microbiologist in the Nafusa town of Nalut. "They've waited long enough and reached a point where we can't go back. Even if Nato stops bombing, we will continue."