Global Politics

Improved communication with Libyan rebels

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Libya map April 13

By Derek Stoffel

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It was just one week ago when young rebels outside the eastern Libyan town of Ajdabiya were cursing NATO. They blamed the military alliance for a 'friendly fire' incident that left four of their own dead. It was the second bombing error blamed on NATO.

But on Wednesday, the rebels celebrated when warplanes were heard over head. NATO is back in the rebels' good books after air strikes a few days ago helped push forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi out of Ajdabiya.

Opposition leaders said that in recent days, they've established better communication with NATO. Rebels on the ground are now in contact with military planners from the alliance. They trade information – NATO warns where air strikes will occur, and the rebels offer targeting information to better guide the bombs from above.

But the situation on the ground remains dangerous.

On this day, more rebel soldiers arrived at a checkpoint west of Ajdabia. Not far behind, as usual, was an ambulance, and a doctor who brought disturbing news.

Dr. Abdulrahman Shamata said three rebel fighters were killed when they went past a checkpoint. The local rebel commander said it was a NATO bomb that killed the men, but he avoided criticizing NATO. He said the men were at fault because they disobeyed orders.

The rebels say in general, they're pleased that they're finally able to talk to the pilots overhead, but there's another worry.

Once soldiers are deployed to the frontlines, they can't talk to other units around them; there are no radios. At times, rebels have had to wave flags to send signals on the battlefield.

Marey el Bejou, a senior rebel in charge of training, said lack of communication is their biggest problem, "because we don't know what other troops are doing or other guys are doing. There's no organization between the troops themselves," Bejou said.

The rebels hope to turn that around quickly. Like everyone else in Libya, the rebels couldn't use their cell phones, after Gaddafi cut telecommunications in March. Now, though, with the help of a Libyan-American telecommunications executive, they've taken over a cell phone network controlled by the Libyan leader. They hijacked transmission towers, and using equipment supplied by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, re-wired the network.

With cell-phone service restored in eastern Libya, the rebels plan to use mobile phones to keep in touch on the battlefield. They'll just have to find a way to keep their batteries charged, when they're out fighting.

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