Libya's western mountain rebels taste success

August 15, 2011 - 5:59 AM
Mideast Libya Rebel Mountain

In this Saturday, Aug. 13, 2011 photo, workers modify a civilian pick-up truck into a military vehicle, adding weapons and reinforcements, in Zintan, western Libya. Zintan has become the nerve center of what is emerging as the rebels' most promising front in their campaign to oust Gadhafi: an attempt to flank the grinding deadlock in the center of the country with an assault from the far west.(AP Photo/Giulio Petrocco)

ZINTAN, Libya (AP) — Rebels in the western mountains of Libya spent weeks meticulously organizing in the town of Zintan for what has now become the opposition's most successful advance in months against Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

Hundreds of regime opponents filtered in from the coastal city of Zawiya and other parts of the Gadhafi-controlled western heartland along the Mediterranean. They formed fighting units in hopes of "liberating" their home towns.

This town of 40,000 on the plateau of the Nafusa Mountains overlooking the coastal plain has become the nerve center of what is now the most promising front in the rebel campaign to oust Gadhafi: an attempt to flank the grinding deadlock in the center of the country with an assault from the far west.

Already, the rebels have managed to push northward, threatening Gadhafi's main supply line linking the capital of Tripoli with the Tunisian border to the west.

Virtually everyone in Zintan, from policemen to hospital cooks and dentists, has either picked up a gun or works at the home front without pay.

Volunteers distribute food, fuel and supplies trucked in from nearby Tunisia to Zintan's residents to get them through shortages while the town and its neighbors focus on the battle.

Once or twice a week, a small transport plane touches down on an unpaved landing strip, loaded with cash and medical supplies from the rebel capital of Benghazi hundreds of miles away in the east, a vital lifeline for this mountain town that has entirely geared up to fight Gadhafi.

"We are looking for freedom," said Mustafa al-Fakhal, 35.

Al-Fakhal is an engineering teacher, but his current job is welding anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns into the beds of pickup trucks. Such gun-trucks are the workhorses of the rebel fighters, and he and his co-workers have churned them out at a rate of around one a day for the past three months. His volunteer team of six includes three experienced welders, but also a former math teacher with a knack for fixing machines.

Gadhafi's troops are still better equipped, trained and financed, though weakened by five months of NATO airstrikes. Earlier on in the uprising that began in February, regime loyalists managed to repel every advance by the eastern rebels out of the Benghazi and they could still push back the western mountain rebels.

For now, the offensive has brought the biggest successes for the rebels in months. On Saturday, rebels fought their way into one of their key targets, the strategic city of Zawiya, only 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, battling Gadhafi forces in the streets as many residents joined the rebel ranks.

The rebels are pushing down from Zintan and other towns in the Nafusa Mountains into the coastal plain and — they hope — on to the capital, Tripoli.

The fighters, though poorly trained, say they have learned to avoid mistakes that plagued their efforts on the eastern front. In the east, fighters would charge ahead in furious advances, then retreat pell-mell when hit by Gadhafi's artillery and rockets.

The eastern and western rebels appear to coordinate their moves only loosely, hampered by the distance and difficulties of contact and communications with Gadhafi forces holding the middle ground between them.

The western rebels are trying to move more cautiously than the eastern rebels did. As they advanced the past week, they set up rear defensive positions, erecting earth walls and deploying tanks, to fall back to if necessary.

"If we go step by step, slowly, it is better than if we hurry and return back," said Col. Jumma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in the mountains.

Still, old habits die hard. Some of the rebels who advanced to Zawiya's edge Saturday charged into the center of the city, vowing to liberate it, only to be ambushed by Gadhafi forces. However, by Sunday, the rebels had consolidated positions in Zawiya.

The people of the Nafusa Mountains, many of them from Libya's long-oppressed ethnic Berber minority, were quick to rise up against Gadhafi when anti-regime protests spread across the country in February. Aided by topography — the plateau towers over the Mediterranean coastal plain — rebels were able to push back regime troops from the string of towns tucked into the mountain after months of shelling and siege.

The scars of that effort remain: There was mutual looting and burning of homes by rebels and Gadhafi supporters, and many of those branded pro-regime have fled, leaving entire towns deserted. In Zintan alone, some 160 people were killed, and rows of graves, marked by crude headstones made of floor tiles or cement blocks, have been added to a sandy lot downtown.

Mountain rebels and their supporters acknowledge the fight could drag on, but say hopefully that victory is inevitable. Gadhafi's grip on Libya is slipping, they say, and he can no longer mount a meaningful counteroffensive.

"There is no chance Gadhafi's troops will return here because we are strong," said Col. Mukhtar Hussein, police chief in Zintan.

For the moment, people here have two pressing concerns — surviving and helping push the front line forward.

Most of the officers in Zintan's police force have gone to join the front, leaving only about 150 in the town, said Hussein — though fortunately, he added, crime is low.

Commerce largely stopped when the uprising erupted, and most people haven't received salaries since then. Tens of thousands of mountain residents now live on pasta, rice and other staples donated by the World Food Program, Libyan expatriates or by the rebel leadership council in Benghazi. Goods are collected in Tunisia, loaded onto trucks and driven to the Nafusa mountains through a border crossing captured by rebels in April.

On a recent morning in Zintan, workers at a central warehouse unloaded a truck carrying dates, in high demand during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which lasts until the end of August. From the warehouse, the goods are distributed to 71 smaller centers across town, according to computerized lists of recipients.

Those who have spare cash buy cigarettes, juice, coffee and other "luxuries." Large crowds form every afternoon, ahead of the evening meal breaking the Ramadan daytime fast, outside small groceries and in the local market.

Most take hardship in stride.

"This is the cost of freedom," said Mubaker Shaeb, a 43-year-old Arabic teacher, standing near a market stall with tomatoes, potatoes and green peppers he can't afford to buy. "I can live without any money, because I am free and this is my city."

Fuel, also trucked in from Tunisia, has become increasingly scarce in the past two weeks, apparently because of a Tunisian crackdown on fuel smuggling to Gadhafi-held areas that seems to be hurting rebel supplies as well. The shortage has disrupted the supply of water, which largely relies on fuel-powered pumps.

Another lifeline is a new air link to Benghazi, the de facto capital of the rebel-held eastern part of Libya, 450 miles (740 kilometers) away. For the past month, small planes have been flying between Benghazi and the western mountains, landing at a desert airstrip outside Zintan and near another town several dozen kilometers away. Planes fly several times a week, carrying passengers, cash and — some say — occasionally weapons.

The leadership in Benghazi, where most international aid is sent, has sent money to Nafusa, including $10 million for distribution to families during Ramadan, said Mukhtar Bakkoush, head of Zintan's local council. However, requests for six months of back pay for civil servants have been turned down.

"They are waiting for money to come from America," Bakkoush said of the rebel government in the east.

The Benghazi leadership has been shaken by the killing of its military chief late last month, possibly by a rival rebel militia. However, the crisis does not seem to have rubbed off on the western rebels, at least on the battlefield.

The Nafusa rebels are fairly autonomous in their military decisions, updating the Benghazi leadership only about the general goals of the current offensive — mainly because of the distance — said Ibrahim, the rebel spokesman.

The overall plan is to capture towns near the capital before launching the push toward Tripoli, with rebel fighters from those cities leading the way. Rebel commanders hope that residents in regime-controlled towns will rise up once the rebels have reached the outskirts of those communities.