Captured Libyan brigadier predicts long battle ahead

Libyan rebels drive on an armed pick-up truck towards the frontline on August 15, 2011 on the outskirt of Brega
Image caption Libya's rebel forces are closer to the capital, Tripoli, than ever before

The Libyan army is under fire on two fronts - pounded by Nato air strikes from above, and attacked by rebel fighters on the ground. What is morale like in the ranks? The BBC's Orla Guerin had a rare chance to ask an insider captured by the rebels.

In Libya, rebel fighters are now closer than ever to the capital. They have reached Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi's backyard - the coast city of Zawiya, about 50 km (31 miles) from the capital, Tripoli.

But the rebels are still facing resistance from the regime's forces. The critical question, for the rebels and for Nato, is how long and how hard will Col Gaddafi's men fight.

The answer, according to one senior army officer, is that some remain willing to fight to the death.

"There are a group of fighters and officers who are still prepared to die for Gaddafi," said the brigadier, who was captured by the rebels last month.

"The majority support him. I know that from the battlefield, and from talking to them."

'Won't give an inch'

Image caption The brigadier said Nato's bombing campaign had not made a difference to morale

This long-serving officer is one of the most high-ranking prisoners in rebel custody. He spoke to us in a detention centre in Misrata, in the presence of rebel officials.

He said he had been well-treated, and appeared calm but guarded.

We cannot reveal his identity or independently verify his testimony - which may have been influenced by fears for his loved ones. The regime keeps a close watch on military families.

The brigadier painted a picture of an army that is well-organised and fit for battle.

There were occasional shortages of ammunition and fuel, he said, but these were not severe. He conceded that there was panic during rebel advances, and Nato air strikes, but he played down the impact of the bombing campaign.

"Nato destroyed a lot of equipment and weapons," he said. "But I did not feel it made any difference to morale. They have been bombarding Gaddafi for five months, and they haven't been able to drive him out."

The brigadier said he had no knowledge of the Libyan leader's plans for the defence of Tripoli, or how many army units he had there.

His predicted that the conflict would drag on.

"From what I saw, this war will last for a long time, because neither side will give an inch."

Troops were told they would be fighting foreigners, not fellow Libyans, according to the brigadier.

"When they gave us orders they said we would be fighting crusaders and al-Qaeda," he said. "I am one of the first guys who wished to die rather than fight fellow Muslims. I hoped to be killed by Nato air strikes, so I would not have to fight."

'Circle tightening'

Reluctantly, or otherwise, Col Gaddafi's forces are continuing to fight.

But in recent days the rebels have gained momentum after months of deadlock, making advances on three fronts. Many fighters believe the endgame is in sight.

Image caption The brigadier said he doubted Col Gaddafi would relinquish power

"The circle is tightening around the tyrant," said Mohammed Ali, a fighter heading home from the front lines near the western town of Tawargha.

"We are cutting his [Col Gaddafi's] supply lines from the south and the east. He will get nothing from Algeria, or from the south of Libya."

But he was cautious about when the rebels might reach Tripoli. "I can't say tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow," he said. "We have to make a collective effort to get there. Hopefully it will be soon."

Rebel gains have been reversed before, but the fighters are now closer than ever to Col Gaddafi.

There is speculation about exit strategies. Libya's interior minister has already arrived in Egypt, with nine members of his family - allegedly on holiday.

But when we spoke to the brigadier, he doubted Col Gaddafi would ever look for a way out.

"That's up to him, but if he was going to relinquish power I think he would have done it before now."