Africa

Libya's embattled rebels beg for ammunition

Rebel fighters stand at their positions on the outskirts of Zlitan, July 2011

Rebel fighters in western Libya say they are running "dangerously low" on ammunition, and are now using their reserves.

A rebel source told the BBC the lack of weapons and ammunition is stalling their efforts against troops loyal to Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, and could lead to a stalemate.

"We aren't firing unless we really have to; we are begging for ammunition," he said.

The fighters have advanced from the port city of Misrata to the strategic town of Zlitan, about 55km (35 miles) to the west.

Rebel units have reached the eastern suburbs, but after two months of inching forward.

"Nato wants this over as soon as possible," the rebel source said.

"If we are tooled up, we can make a push for Tripoli. But the minimum we need is a constant supply of ammunition."

He spoke of frustration among the fighters at their continuing losses.

"It's at least 10 a day. We can't go on like this indefinitely," he said.

The fighters are not getting the help they need from their de facto capital, Benghazi, according to our source.

"You don't know who to speak to," he said.

"Promises are made, and then things don't turn up."

That evidence of disarray in the rebel capital is worrying for the fighters, and for Nato.

'Nato's cheaper option'

Commanders in Misrata are now negotiating with three countries to supply arms directly to them, according to our source.

He said this was a question of speed, not of divisions with Benghazi.

The fighters have received some weaponry from Qatar, he said, but only light arms dating from the 1970s.

It would be cheaper for Nato to arm the rebels than to keep dropping laser-guided bombs in air strikes, he added.

Rebels on the offensive in Libya's western mountains echo complaints about a critical lack of ammunition.

They also lament a lack of leadership and organisation.

Image caption The capital is about an hour and a half's drive to the west of Zlitan

But around Zlitan, the main worry is bullets.

One rebel commander, Omar El Amin, told us that at times he is down to his last box.

When asked about his current supply, he responded with a shrug and a sigh.

"Our ammunition could run out any time now," said the bearded former truck driver, cradling his AK-47 assault riffle.

"What I have may be enough for only one or two days. We fear that they will attack us any minute."

'Fight till the last breath'

Image caption Rebel soldiers are also fighting exhaustion and hunger

His fighters lay in the shade nearby, clad in jeans and T-shirts - an amateur army running on empty.

As well as battling Col Gaddafi's troops, they are fighting exhaustion and hunger.

The rebels are fasting for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, but the commander insists this has strengthened their resolve.

"The guys have high spirits and with a little more ammunition we could advance even further," he said.

"We will fight to the last breath."

For now, they have to stay put, waiting for the next incoming mortars or rockets.

It usually does not take long.

"The enemy rests for an hour, and then fights for an hour," said the commander.

"They want to wear us out."

From a lookout post on high ground, we got a glimpse of Col Gaddafi's men.

They were across the sand dunes about two kilometres away, visible with binoculars, and perhaps watching us too.

Encircling tactics

The rebels are getting plenty of help from above, in the form of Nato air strikes.

Fighters say the tempo has increased.

The UK's RAF tornado jets have pounded targets in and around Zlitan, destroying some of Col Gaddafi's concealed weaponry.

The rebels know there is plenty more.

Image caption The rebels want to cut off supply lines to pro-Gaddafi soldiers in Zlitan

Their aim is not to try to occupy the town, sources say, but to surround it, cutting off supply lines.

That tactic worked well in Misrata, where the regime's snipers were encircled and starved of food and ammunition.

Rebel officials in Misrata say they could push deeper into Zlitan, but they want their supporters in the town to pave the way. "We are waiting for the fighters inside to do some operations that will make it easier for our guys to enter Zlitan," said military spokesman Ibrahim Bait Almal.

He claims the fighters will take Zlitan within the next fortnight - an optimistic prediction given how long it has taken them to penetrate the suburbs.

The rebels need to get through, or around, the town in order to push on towards Tripoli. The capital is just an hour and a half's drive to the West, but it feels like a distant prospect.

The rebels thought victory would come much sooner when they rose up against their leader more than five months ago. So did Nato. The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, predicted that the bombing campaign would be counted in weeks, not months.

But Libya's Arab Spring has bled into a gruelling summer, with perhaps a long autumn to come.

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