Returning to Libyan rebel outpost of Misrata

Young girls flash victory signs as they look through their window aboard a ship in Misrata's port Image copyright AP

Back to Misrata. Last time, it was on a tiny, impossibly slow and rusting fishing boat, manned by Libya's rebels.

This time the journey from Benghazi into the besieged city of Misrata felt more like a Mediterranean cruise.

I even had a cabin to share onboard the Turkish ferry that has now begun shuttling across the Gulf of Sirte, carrying in humanitarian supplies, and still bringing out the gravely wounded and the displaced.

"Things are getting better," said Suliman Fortia, a member of Misrata's Transitional Council.

I ran into him on the bridge of the Azzura as we came into dock, leaving a small flotilla of Nato warships - which had just intercepted several unmanned speedboats belonging to Col Muammar Gaddafi - behind us on the horizon.

Mr Fortia was just returning from days of "chaotic" political meetings in Benghazi to his home city.

"Two more weeks," he said confidently, as our conversation quickly veered towards the only topic anyone really focuses on here.

"First we take Zliten [a neighbouring town to the west] and then the road to Tripoli is open for us. In two weeks, Col Gaddafi is finished."

Could this really be the start of the endgame? Given how little we know about the state, and mindset of Col Gaddafi's armed forces, that is a tough one to answer, although defectors and prisoners paint an increasingly desperate picture.

No helicopters

Misrata's rebels are still losing men on the frontlines outside Zliten with alarming, unsustainable frequency - 31 on Friday, 6 on Sunday.

But their morale is higher than ever and there is a growing, and possibly dangerous assumption that their enemy is crumbling.

And what of Nato? With costs rising, the generals fuming and political patience wearing thin, it too seems to be warming up for the finale, with an intensification of the air war.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption There is a lot of history squeezed into this narrow strip of coastline

But there is not much evidence of the Apache helicopters in action - their vulnerability to attack from the ground making the politicians nervous about fatalities.

Speaking of which, I spent an hour in Benghazi at the well-maintained Commonwealth War Cemetery just outside the city centre, now opposite a rebel army compound.

There are perhaps 1,000 graves in all from World War II - mostly British, but including members of the Sudan Defence Corps, sepoys from the 1st Punjab Regiment, Sikh soldiers of the Indian Army, and row after row of West African troops from the African Pioneer Corps.

A few weeks ago, I drove from Cairo to Benghazi, past El Alamein, Tobruk and their accompanying cemeteries. There is an awful lot of history squeezed into this long and narrow strip of coastline.

I've noted a lot of critical comments on this blog about western motives in Libya. Some may be spot on. Some I would file in the simplistic, "lowest common denominator" file.

It is hard to judge those motives from here, and frankly it's not my immediate concern, but in the coming days I'll try to give you a flavour of the mood and the changes taking place in Misrata - a city no longer immediately threatened by Wilfred Owen's "demented choirs of wailing shells".

Two weeks ago, just before leaving Misrata, I spent a morning with Abdullah Fortea.

He is the brother of Suliman Fortea, the man I just met on the boat.

They struck me as family of unusual integrity and accomplishment. Suliman is an architect and Abdullah an obstetrician, arrested in 1989 and jailed for six years without ever being told why.

His father died beside him in the same cell. Another brother was executed, and one more brother was recently killed while fighting on the frontlines in Misrata.

Abdullah, a generous and chubby 44-year-old with a warm smile and sad eyes, said to me simply, and with certainty: "This will end, soon. And then we will have our dignity back."

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