Kim Sengupta: If rebels seize Gaddafi's birthplace, he is finished
Published 29/03/2011 | 05:00
There were skirmishes on the way and a few panicked retreats but, slowly, the rebel forces were getting towards their goal -- Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace, a fiercely loyal stronghold and a key strategic point in moving on the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
The scale and nature of resistance from the regime's soldiers indicated how much their firepower had been devastated by Western air strikes. There was little of the heavy shelling that had made the revolutionary forces flee in the past. This was replaced instead by sporadic rockets and small-arms clashes on the ground.
The rebel commanders, nonetheless, remain worried after reports that the male population of Sirte had been armed and what remains of the regime's armour and artillery on the eastern front has been deployed to protect the city. Renewed bombing of the military positions in the city by international coalition warplanes are said to have caused some damage, but the city remains well guarded.
The rebel government is hoping that the defences at Sirte may be undermined from within. Negotiations are going on, officials claim, with two clans, the Farjan and the Hamanlah, in attempts to persuade them to stay out of the fray and use their influence with others to secure a handover with as little bloodshed as possible.
According to some reports the Farjan, the largest "family" in the area, have fallen out with the regime over the allocation of money and weapons in the area to form an anti-rebel tribal federation. They and their allies, the Hamanlah, are said to have objected to how much had been received by two other clans, the Rasoun and the Olad-Wafi.
A dozen members of the Farjan were executed by a militia supporting Gaddafi, after a summary trial, turning the dispute into a blood feud, say rebel officials -- a claim which cannot be independently verified.
General Khalifa Heftar, who is in charge of rebel operations, insisted that the talks with the clans were progressing well: "They will help us against the Gaddafi men, I am sure," he said. "The aim is not just to secure Sirte but to avoid unnecessary violence. We also hope that the military still with the government will want to join the revolution. We shall take Sirte, but it has to be a careful operation, and we need to surround the place."
At the outset of the conflict, the common belief among many in the protest movement was that Tripoli would fall before Sirte, "because people in Sirte are so blindly loyal to Gaddafi". But the withdrawal from Ajdabiya by the regime troops after a second round of pounding attacks from the air and their failure to defend the two next towns, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, has led to optimism about taking over Gaddafi's own bastion.
But the extent to which the successes of the rebel fighters, known as "the Shabaab", has been due to outside help was underlined by General Carter F Hamm in Washington. The most senior US officer involved in the operation also warned that without continued aid, the gains could easily be reversed.
"The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason this has not happened," he said. The general added that despite some "localised wavering" by regime soldiers in Ajdabiya, there have only been isolated incidents of defection to the rebels.
By yesterday evening the Shabaab had reached the village of Om al-Gandel, around 80km from Sirte. They had taken Nawfilya, the last large urban centre, by the afternoon. A claim made by a provisional government spokesman in Benghazi, early in the morning, that Sirte had already fallen, repeated by the Al-Jazeera television channel, was untrue.
Some Shabaab fighters in Bin Jawad proclaimed that Sirte had been taken, based on the Al-Jazeera report, and that they only had to go forward to occupy it briefly before moving on the Tripoli. A few cars full of volunteers, however, were heading back to Benghazi. When asked why, one of the drivers, Salim Yaqoub, said "I came forward because Sirte was meant to be difficult. But since it has been captured so easily I will go back and look after my shop."
Sagar al-Farsi (24), was complaining that his fellow fighters should not pay too much heed to what was being said in Benghazi, and that there was a job to be done. Half an hour later he was shot in the leg, a burst of automatic rifle fire coming from a black saloon car as it sped out of Nawfilya.
However, an hour after that he was back on the frontline, with his right leg bandaged from knee to calf.
"It was not a bad injury, I will not be able to march far, but I can travel in that," he said, pointing to a minibus full of volunteers. "I cannot miss Sirte. I want to go there and ask the people who still supported Gaddafi why they could not see the harm he was doing to our country."
Ten minutes later several rounds of rocket-propelled grenades landed around 50 yards away. Several vehicles in the convoy immediately turned back, but most continued to advance.
What did the rebels think about calls by Britain and France that the regime's supporters should withdraw their support as soon as possible, and that Gaddafi must leave power?
"Sirte will show if that is the case, if the people there turn against him, then he is finished in Tripoli," mused Mr Mohibullah. "A week ago we would have said let's put him on trial and hang him. But if him going ends the fighting, let him go."