Paul Wood

Can they take Tripoli?

Into battle with Libya’s middle-class rebel army

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Into battle with Libya’s middle-class rebel army

Nafusa mountains, Libya

‘My people, did you forget what you got from this tyrant Gaddafi? Only pain, death and humiliation!’ The commander of the Tripoli Brigade was rallying his men at a rebel base not far from the frontline in the western mountains. ‘Stand up, in his face, and say in one voice: No more!’ The Tripoli Brigade is a ‘special unit’ being prepared to storm the capital. Most of its members still have family in Tripoli, so had covered their faces with masks. If I hadn’t known that they were an army of teachers, engineers and accountants, many holding a gun for the first time, I might have thought them a bit sinister.

Some were paunchy despite the training — as if the Rotary Club had gone to war — but even so, they were determined to see the fight through. A fighter called Ismail showed me a bracket attached to the muzzle of his Kalashnikov. It held a single bullet. ‘I’m saving this one for Gaddafi,’ he said. After an off-key rendition of the pre-Gaddafi national anthem, the rebels listened to their commander again: ‘In this lifetime, we will get just one chance. We have to take it.’

And they have to take it soon, while the momentum lasts. Public support in the US, Britain and France for Nato’s bombing campaign is ebbing. And as the Tripoli Brigade prepared to advance, the ‘brother-leader’ replied to a French suggestion that he go peacefully into exile. His response, literally translated, was: ‘Step down? You’re ’aving a laugh aren’t you?’

The rebels’ most promising front is here in the western mountains, the Jebel Nafusa, a 2,600ft-high plateau overlooking a plain running all the way to Tripoli. A few months ago, the main towns here — Yafran, Zintan and Jadu — were under daily bombardment. The rebels lifted the siege and slowly pushed the Libyan army back, one hamlet at a time. Now, just a couple more towns stand between them and the road to the capital. It is a mere 60 miles away. Can they take Tripoli? The events of the last few days have demonstrated their strengths and their weaknesses.

Weapons are a serious problem. They have only one Kalashnikov for every four fighters. Recently, in the village of Qawallis, while a dozen rebels snoozed in the shade of a wall, a man in a ‘Free Libya’ T-shirt and flip-flops wandered up. He had arrived a week ago from Australia and was on the frontline ‘giving moral support’. He had only a penknife to fight with, and he wasn’t alone in that.

Then, suddenly, gunfire. We couldn’t see it but it was close. ‘Don’t worry,’ the rebels said, laughing, ‘it’s our men waking up Gaddafi’s troops.’ It wasn’t. The firing intensified and through their one pair of binoculars, the rebels spied jeeps coming. They were under attack. They ran forward, hiding behind a pile of sand to pour automatic fire at the dust cloud that marked the advancing column.

‘Where’s our vehicle?’ a man screamed, glancing backwards between firing bursts from a heavy machine gun. We sprinted back to our vehicle. All around us, the rebels were running too. Three threw themselves into our pick-up truck as it pulled away. Rebel cars sped past as bullets zipped down the road. ‘We’re being surrounded,’ the soldiers shouted: ‘Drive!’ Miles further on, they finally pulled up, and one man ran off to tell a mosque to sound the alarm.

But retreat did not mean defeat. That evening, reinforced with 50 to 60 jeeps, the rebels recaptured the lost ground. Retaking Qawallis was costly, though. The dead included the Australian in flip-flops. The rebels said his was among three ‘mutilated’ bodies recovered from the battlefield with, it was claimed, the hearts cut out.

The return match at Qawallis showed that rebels had fighting spirit. But there was another more worrying development after that. They became embarrassed that foreign journalists had witnessed their earlier, panicky flight and began requiring daily passes, signed and stamped by the media centre, to go to the front. They did not like questions, either, about the looting, which has taken place in ‘liberated’ villages. Signs have now been put up telling fighters not to burn houses or steal from them. Rather quaintly, one notice asks for volunteers to help tidy up, so that the families who fled (largely Gaddafi loyalists) will find their homes as they left them.

Rebel commanders know how damaging it will be if this starts to look less like a democratic revolution and more like another civil war. Last week, five bodies — apparently Gaddafi soldiers — were found dumped in an underground water tank, one decapitated, another stripped. The rebels’ initial response was to order local drivers not to take journalists anywhere near the place. Later, we were told that they were soldiers killed by their own side for trying to desert.

That may or may not be true, but an internal debate is raging among the leadership here over whether to be open or to retreat into regime-like paranoia. Those who want openness have prevailed for the time being, but for how long? Meanwhile, Colonel Gaddafi has reportedly sent his best troops to the garrison town standing between the rebels and Tripoli. One way or another, the fate of the revolution is being decided here in the Nafusa mountains.

Paul Wood is reporting from Libya for BBC News.