Conflict & Justice

Libyan rebels shaken by airstrikes


A group of rebel fighters gather near the car of a man who was killed when a air strike hit his car on March 8, 2011.


Nichole Sobecki

BREGA, Libya – Tripoli has never seemed so far away.

When the Libyan revolution began three weeks ago, spirits were high and the mood light.

Tunisia’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had been forced out of his country by a movement sparked by a desperate vegetable seller. Then Mubarak resigned. Bahraini Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa and Yemeni President Ali Adbullah Saleh both also stand on shaky ground these days.

But while the regional uprisings might have inspired the Libya’s own revolt, Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s longtime leader, has proved he will not give up control without a serious fight — even if it means sending his country tumbling into civil war.

The Libyan uprising is fueled by decades of hatred for the country’s dictator, whose abuse of his own people has left a deep reservoir of anger, and a resolve to regain control of their country at any cost.

“There is only one target: Muamar Gaddafi,” said Mohamad Abdulla, 23, a former English student who has been unable to find a job since he graduated in 2006. “We want to kill him. We want his blood.”

“Gaddafi is not a president, he is not even human,” added Ahmen Hasi, 25, who defected from the Libyan army when the fighting began.

Most of the country’s people live along the main highway that runs east and west along the Mediterranean coast. The rebels are trying to push the frontline of the battle west towards the capital. The main obstacle is Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace and a center of his support. Sirte lies between the rebel-held town of Ras Lanuf and their goal — Tripoli.

On Tuesday, opposition fighters maintained a tenuous hold of their frontline position, about 15 miles west of the strategic Ras Lanuf oil refinery. Heavy bombing by government jets on rebel positions along the road running from Ras Lanuf to Bin Jawwad caused multiple injuries and at least one casualty. Fighting on the ground, meanwhile, appeared to lessen.

As the line of control continues to waver by several miles of brush and desert, neither side looks likely to emerge the victor any time soon.

The Libyan air force has been Gaddafi’s trump card in these daily battles — raising international concerns about Libyans, both rebels and civilians, being massacred from above, and strengthening the argument for a no-fly zone imposed by foreign governments, an idea the rebels support.

“I watch Obama on TV, he always calls for Gaddafi to step down but he doesn’t do anything,” said a rebel fighter at the checkpoint beside the Ras Lanuf oil refinery. “We will fight our own battles on the ground but we need their help from the sky.”

Unlike the army, which now boasts about 45,000 men, few have defected from the air force, which remains essentially loyal to Gaddafi. About 20,000 mercenaries have largely replaced the defections from the regular army, which a suspicious and often paranoid Gaddafi long kept under-funded and under-manned.

As security forces loyal to Gaddafi continue their push toward Ras Lanuf, it is becoming increasingly clear that their earlier successes had more to do with a lack of organized defense on Gaddafi’s side, rather than the military might of the rebels.

“We have no strategy, we are just people. We are not an army, we have no training with guns, or how to use them,” Abdullah said. “But our god is with us and our blood is what makes this country.”

As the fighting has dragged on, and the body count risen, the initial enthusiasm felt among the rebels is wearing thin. In the past three days, fighting has killed 30 rebels and wounded another 169, according to a doctor at Al-Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi, the rebel stronghold.

After a day of heavy air strikes and artillery bombardment, rebel soldiers returned from the front visibly shaken, some in tears.

“Some people come and some people go,” said rebel fighter Montaser Omar, 23, adding that the lagging numbers of visible soldiers on the frontline is the result of men returning home to rest and receive training.

The opposition’s primary asset, aside from sheer force of will, appears to be significant arms depots captured in eastern Libya. Morale, and their will to hold together, are also significant factors in their ability to fend off regime attacks and maintain key regions now under their control.

Most fighters held onto a grim sense of determination. And while the numbers of men manning the checkpoints has decreased in the past few days, the fighters that remain appear more focused than ever.

“Maybe we will die, but we will die free,“ Abdullah said. “These are the first days of my life.”

He said that he was reborn on Feb.17, the day the revolution began.