Africa

Libya rebels make most significant advance in the west

Rebels in western Libya. Photo: 7 July 2011
Image caption Rebels say they want to control the main north-south road to Tripoli

Opposition fighters in western Libya have made their most significant advance against government forces for several weeks.

The fighters, whose stronghold is in the Nafusa Mountains (or Jebel Nafusa), are part of the loose coalition of opposition forces headquartered in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The rebels of the Jebel Nafusa have taken the village of Gualish, about 90km (55 miles) south of Tripoli, following a fierce battle which involved scores, possibly hundreds of fighters on both sides.

Col Muammar Gaddafi's forces have often shown a fierce determination to reverse rebel gains.

Government troops also have the advantage in terms of heavy weapons on the ground - so the rebel advance may not be permanent.

Booby traps

When I visited Gualish on Thursday, fires from the battle were still smouldering in abandoned houses on the battlefield and at an electricity substation.

Image caption The area is littered with burned out vehicles and other detritus of war

Looters were picking their way through a hardware store and entering other buildings.

Rebel fighters were siphoning petrol from the tanks of a half-destroyed filling station. Many of them were smoking cigarettes while they did so.

The green flag of Col Gaddafi's Libya was still fluttering in the wind on the top of a tall electricity pylon.

But the rebels were in control of the area, and were - no doubt - soon planning to climb the pylon to replace it with their own red, black and green flag that they say represents "free Libya".

To take Gualish, the rebels moved between 10-15km ahead of positions they had held 24 hours earlier.

Opposition fighters said Nato had bombed some of Col Gaddafi's heavy weapons in the area prior to their move, although it was not immediately clear where the foreign jets had struck.

"The Gaddafi forces booby-trapped some of the houses with trip wires and explosives," said a rebel fighter with an AK 47 assault rifle on his shoulder. He gave his name as Mohammed Rujbani.

"We had to be very careful as we went through the town," he added.

Malian 'mercenary'

Although small in itself, Gualish is some 45km from the strategic garrison town of Gharian, which is held by Col Gaddafi's soldiers.

The advance does not immediately take the rebels geographically closer to Tripoli.

But wars are not fought in straight lines, and Gharian is a vital target for the insurgents.

It dominates the main north-south road between Tripoli and the Sahara desert.

The desert is an area where the rebels say Col Gaddafi has arms depots, and where he allegedly recruits fighters from neighbouring countries.

While I was standing by the roadside in Gualish, a man who saw the "Press" markings on my flak jacket pulled up his car and jumped out to show me the passport of a Malian national.

"This man was fighting for Col Gaddafi," the driver said, brandishing the Malian's passport, his identity card and his personal photograph album.

Snaps in the album showed the Malian in various poses, including one with a young woman and another with a baby.

The stamps in his otherwise empty passport showed that he had left northern Mali on 9 May and entered Libya via Algeria.

The driver said he didn't know what had happened to the Malian, whose profession was listed in his passport as "business employee".

However, if the Malian was indeed fighting for Col Gaddafi, and lost his passport, it seems likely he fled in a hurry when the rebels arrived.

Western 'advisers'

The roadsides in Gualish were littered with the discarded uniforms of government soldiers, as well as the other detritus of war.

There were tens of thousands of spent bullet casings, which crunched underfoot, and vicious shards of shrapnel from exploded shells.

I can't confirm the driver's story about the Malian.

But judging by the spontaneous nature of our meeting - and from the driver's straightforward, simple demeanour - it seemed very likely to me that he was telling the truth as he saw it.

The opposition's accusation that Col Gaddafi is recruiting foreign nationals is now widespread.

The rebels have the overt support of the foreign air forces of Nato countries.

West European nations, including France and Britain, say they have sent military "advisers" into rebel held territory.

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