Wednesday 28 June 2017

Libya: 'It felt like an ambush. Bullets fizzed past our ears'

A Norwegian F-16 fighter aircraft takes off from Bodoe in northern Norway yesterday, bound for Sicily to assist in enforcing the no-fly zone above Libya. Photo: AP
A Norwegian F-16 fighter aircraft takes off from Bodoe in northern Norway yesterday, bound for Sicily to assist in enforcing the no-fly zone above Libya. Photo: AP

Rob Crilly in Libya

THE rebels raced each other along the Tripoli road making pell-mell for the disputed town of Ajdabiya. They charged ahead convinced war planes were in the air again.

Buoyed by the sight of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's tanks lying smashed and charred along the route, the disparate column of pick-ups had chased government troops almost 90 miles out of the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

But it wasn't supposed to be like that. Commanders had been co-ordinating attacks with coalition leaders to enable French and British war planes to bomb Gaddafi targets before rebel fighters advanced. Yet there was no sign of anything reining in the chaotic advance -- until the sound of katyusha rockets slamming into the sandy soil sent the ranks of volunteers into a frenzied panic of honking three-point turns.

Bullet rounds fizzed through the air past our ears. It felt like an ambush. The revolutionary soldiers had been lured too close to the town where they were horribly exposed on the road.

They retreated just as fast as they had advanced, finally stopping to catch their breath about 10 miles from Ajdabiya.

A battered Toyota pick-up bore the scars of the failed assault. Its windscreen was shattered. Shrapnel had shredded one wing. Four people had been killed, said the rebels.

A fresh mound of damp sand marked the grave of one of the dead men who had been buried within minutes of the retreat. The headstone was a lump of concrete pulled from a pile of rubble at the side of the road.

No one was sure of his name. All they had managed to retrieve was his head.

Salah Abdelkarim Abar, a 25-year-old law student until the popular uprising had taken him from his studies, said the rebels would regroup and head back down the road again before the day was out. "All we want to do is go there to get the civilians and get them out," he said. "We have to wait for things to calm down and we will go back."

Last week Ajdabiya was all but lost. Heavy artillery swept through the town, driving hundreds of armed volunteers back from the front. By the end of the week it was surrounded by Gaddafi troops, trapping a rebel unit inside. A column of tanks rumbled on towards Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital.

Then all changed in the early hours of Sunday morning when French air strikes left Gaddafi's war machine in a mangled mess of smoking metal. Now the rebels are at the gateway to Ajdabiya once again.

Attacks

But they have been ordered to rein in the excitable rabble of volunteer fighters to free French and British ground attack planes to target Gaddafi's forces.

Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, a member of the rebels' national council, said that the rebels' chief of staff, Gen Abdel Fattah Yunis, was liaising with coalition nations to co-ordinate attacks and keep opposition forces from getting caught in strikes.

"This was requested by the military council and this request was passed on to the forces on the ground to stay back and facilitate the attacks by the coalition," he said.

Faraj Younis al-Fadeeli, a honey farmer by trade, summed up the problem: "We have got to have a leader. There's no one at the moment. Instead we all do our own thing."

Another man, who asked not to be identified because his brother and father were in Ajdabiya, said the coalition must bomb the town even if it meant civilian casualties.

Razing the town was the best way to free the country of Gaddafi resistance, he added. "Even if they blow up Ajdabiya we don't care -- to get rid of them is crucial." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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