Wednesday, June 29, 2011
On Tripoli Road
Libya: Fierce fighting south-west of Tripoli
They were on their way to Tripoli
Rebel forces in Libya have clashed with troops loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi about 80km (50 miles) south-west of the capital, Tripoli.
A rebel spokesman in the Nafusa mountains said there had been heavy fighting on the outskirts of the strategic town of Bir al-Ghanam.
The rebels told the BBC they were making a push for Tripoli.
Meanwhile the International Criminal Court is to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Col Gaddafi.
A decision by a three-judge panel is expected at 1100 GMT. The ICC's chief prosecutor has also requested arrest warrants for Col Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, and the head of Libyan intelligence, Abdullah Senussi.
The warrants are for alleged crimes against humanity committed against opponents of the regime.
The international military operation in Libya entered its 100th day on Monday, with the rebels still struggling to take advantage of coalition air strikes on Col Gaddafi's infrastructure.
The Libyan news agency reported fresh strikes on Tripoli overnight.
The rebels control the east of the country as well as pockets of western Libya, including the Nafusa mountains.
Guma el-Gamaty, a spokesman for the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC), told AP news agency that Bir al-Ghanam - the focus of the latest fighting - was important as it was barely 30km (18 miles) south of Zawiya, a western gateway to Tripoli.
Opposition fighters seized Zawiya in March before government troops drove the rebels out of the oil-refinery city. Fighting again broke out there this month.
The BBC's Mark Doyle, who is in the village of Bir Ayad near Bir al-Ghanam, says Sunday's fighting began when government forces tried to cut off the rebels by attacking from behind.
Clashes continued in the distance, where the boom of artillery, the rattle of automatic gunfire and the occasional rumble of Nato jets could be heard, he says.
A medic said two rebels had died in the battle. The rebels said government forces suffered far greater casualties, although that cannot be confirmed.
The rebels came down into the plains from the Nafusa mountains in early June, adds our correspondent. But they have met strong resistance from Col Gaddafi's forces.
He says that although it is a shifting front line, the rebels appear to be gradually consolidating their position in the mountains.
The minister of defence for Libya's rebels, Jalal al-Dgheli, told the BBC that because their weapons were so limited, most of them were focused on the push from the western mountains towards Tripoli.
But in the near future there could be an advance from the east near Brega towards Tripoli, he told the BBC's Bridget Kendall in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
"What we're learning from defectors is that Gaddafi's supporters are getting fewer, people who are close to him are abandoning him, and his inner circle is getting smaller by the day."
He added that he hoped Col Gaddafi could be gone by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in August, but our correspondent said this could be wishful thinking.
The Libyan government on Sunday meanwhile reportedly renewed its offer for a vote on whether Col Gaddafi should stay in power.
Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was quoted as telling reporters in Tripoli that the government was proposing a period of national dialogue and an election overseen by the UN and African Union.
fires at a graduation ceremony after a weapons training course in Tripoli
"If the Libyan people decide Gaddafi should leave he will leave," Mr Ibrahim was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying. "If the people decide he should stay he will stay."
But he said Col Gaddafi - who has run the oil-producing country since a military coup in 1969 - would not go into exile.
The idea of holding an election was first raised earlier this month by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
Since then Italy has called for a political settlement to the conflict, following a Nato strike in Tripoli on 19 June that killed several civilians.
In a separate development, African leaders meeting in Pretoria said Col Gaddafi has agreed to stay out of talks aimed at ending the conflict.
In a communique after talks on Sunday, the African Union panel on Libya said it welcomed "Col Gaddafi's acceptance of not being part of the negotiations process".
The statement did not elaborate.
Libyan base falls to rebel ambush
EL GA’A, LIBYA — In darkness Monday night and Tuesday morning, rebel soldiers from towns throughout the Nafusah Mountain region gathered to put the finishing touches on a bold mission: they planned to capture a sprawling military base controlled by government soldiers that was still stocked, they believed, with the kinds of weapons and ammunition that would help level their fight against the Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
A group of the fighters spent the night at a safe house, and as the sun rose Tuesday here in the mountains of western Libya, hundreds of other fighters joined them in positions around the base. By midday, the rebels had routed 100 or so Gadhafi soldiers who had been guarding the base and who had left their potatoes, trash and crumpled green uniforms behind.
The soldiers also left a dubious bounty for the rebels, who carried off crates of outdated and aging ammunition and weapons’ parts, including components for heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles that security experts worry about falling into the hands of terrorists.
There was no sight of the rifles they desperately needed. But that could not diminish the glow of a hard-fought victory, and the fighters fired in celebration as they drove away from the base in trucks packed with olive-coloured crates.
As the rebel offensive has faltered in other parts of Libya, it seems to have picked up momentum in the west. The rebels have ambitious plans of consolidating control of the western mountain region and using it as a staging ground for an assault on the oil city of Zawiya and, finally, the heavily fortified capital of Tripoli.
Gadhafi is holed up there, and Tuesday the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Louis Moreno-Ocampo, predicted that the colonel’s days as head of state are numbered and urged his associates to arrest him on the warrant issued by the court Monday.
The rebels are not banking on that turn of events, however. On Sunday, they made their farthest advance yet toward Tripoli, in a fight with Gadhafi soldiers in Bir al-Ghanem. The victory at the base also seemed to signal progress, in that the Gadhafi loyalists had kept control of the depot despite repeated bombings by NATO warplanes.
As hundreds of people rummaged through concrete ammunition stores Tuesday, one rebel leader, buoyed by the victory, framed the attack as one more step in preparation for an inevitable advance.
“We will go to Tripoli,” said the leader, Said al-Fasatwi, a revolutionary commander from the town of Jadu. “But we won’t leave anything behind.”
Monday night, as fighters gathered at the headquarters of the military council in the town of Rajban, Col. Mohamed Ethish and another officer reviewed a map of the battlefield surrounding the military base. Other men prepared their weapons, and a few fighters set out to scout the area.
Their offensive started at about 6 a.m., when rebels in trucks with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers took up positions around the base, a meandering collection of more than 70 concrete bunkers and buildings that stretched for kilometres. An hour later, the Gadhafi soldiers were fighting back fiercely but aiming poorly. For hours, Grad rocket barrages and mortar rounds landed harmlessly in the desert scrub, sometimes far behind the rebel lines.
The rebels have boasted recently of a much-improved communications system that, coupled with the degradation of the Gadhafi forces’ communications, is giving them a major advantage on the battlefield. Although there is no cellphone service here, the rebels were equipped with walkie-talkies, which did seem to give them some tactical advantage.
By 10 a.m., spectators watching with binoculars from nearby hills decided the battle was going well enough that they could move closer. Two hours later, the hills were filled with brown dust, as rebel vehicles drove in convoys toward the base, reacting to the news: the Gadhafi soldiers had fled.
The rebels said only one of their fighters was dead, by rounds from an anti-aircraft gun. One man returning from the front lines thought some of the loyalist soldiers had been killed, though he did not know how many.
“I saw blood,” he said.
If the attack on the base was a showcase of rebel organization, its aftermath was a picture of the movement’s shortcomings. Apart from men directing traffic, there seemed to be no effort to secure the ammunition or weapons.
On a road outside the base, a truck hauled away cases of ammunition bearing stickers that showed two hands shaking above the words United States of America. A traffic jam clogged the narrow entrance. Young men hitched rides on the back of pickup trucks, hoping to find a Kalashnikov or any other gun. There were none to be had, so the men hauled away anything they could find.
“I found a new gun,” said Murad Ruheibi, 33, holding up an emptied plastic water bottle with a snake he found in one of the warehouses. A teenager slung an anti-aircraft component on his shoulder as others carted away dozens of the weapons, known as Manpads.
All but a handful of the concrete storage bunkers had been partly or destroyed by several waves of NATO airstrikes, rebels said. Carpets of metal stretched for hundreds of feet in front of the damaged buildings, consisting of destroyed ammunition and unexploded tank shells.
In undamaged bunkers, people ripped apart ammunition cases, striking them with crowbars or the butts of their guns. At least one person died while handling the ammunition, according to people at the hospital in the nearby town of Zintan. By day’s end, there were signs that the rebel momentum might be fleeting: Hundreds of people fled the base, after a rumour that the Gadhafi soldiers were returning. But they did not.
A fighter from Jadu, who asked to be identified by his first name, Sufian, suggested that any talk about an attack on Tripoli was premature.
“We are going to have to organize ourselves out here first,” he said.
Mercury news services