Outgunned, but not easily beaten
John Simpson joined anti-Gaddafi rebels as they prepared to go into battle
Published 06/03/2011 | 05:00
To call it an army is, of course, absurd. The force which charged off wildly along the coastal road on Friday afternoon and headed westwards along the Bay of Sirt, aiming for Colonel Gaddafi's stronghold of Ras Lanouf, had scarcely any of the usual characteristics of an army: no uniform, no training, no discipline, no officers.
All they had was weapons (though plenty of unarmed volunteers went along for the ride), a flag, and an overpowering determination to get rid of the man who has dominated their lives for 41 years. It is a peasants' revolt, with AK-47s.
There have been a dozen or so small uprisings over the years, almost all of them smashed with great cruelty. Ordinary people joined them just in case they might lead somewhere, and they duly paid the penalty. And now the best chance of all has come along. This is no time to stay at home and see how things turn out.
At the main crossroads in the little oil town of Al-Brega, a big man in a blue and white tracksuit and a white scarf round his head came running over to me and forced his way through the little group which, as ever, had gathered around our television camera.
He wouldn't be stopped from shouting his story to me, his spittle landing on my face, his hand clutching my arm in case I tried to pull away.
"I am prisoner five years," he shouted. "I tortured, I hit. My brothers same, three of them. Now I . . ." His English finally failed him, and he turned back to Arabic. "Say he want revenge now, big time," my translator explained.
The man in the blue and white tracksuit glared round at the crowd, and they roared their angry approval.
Now, if ever, is their big chance. Two generations have come and gone under Col Gaddafi's oppressive rule.
This moment may just possibly belong to people who weren't even born when he and his group of young officers staged their coup against the king.
There was no holding the volunteers, and they charged off into the stinging yellow air, determined to take Ras Lanouf or die in the attempt. All the officers could do was to call Benghazi for reinforcements, then head off down the road themselves.
It is very hard to get people outside Libya to understand the true nature of this conflict. Warfare here, as in other parts of Africa, is brief, fleeting, and pretty small scale. The solitary two-lane highway which follows the coast of Libya from Tobruk and Benghazi in the east, then snakes down to Ajdabiya, Ras Lanouf and Sirt, and heads up to Misratah and Tripoli, is the narrow artery through which the occasional fighting is channelled.
The air raids consist of a single bomb dropped by a single pilot in an ancient Soviet-made Sukhoi.
In Ajdabiya itself, at the start of the uprising, a pilot sent to bomb the crowd in the middle of town instead ejected and crashed his plane in the desert beyond. Pieces from the wings and fuselage are kept on display at the roundabout where the town gathers, as though they are holy relics.
Ajdabiya has been a centrepiece of this revolution, but it's no Guernica.
This is a conflict in which generals don't really matter. All that counts is the spirit of the men on the front line, and in that the rebels have a real advantage. Watching them at Ras Lanouf, it was obvious that they were heavily outgunned.
Col Gaddafi's men have artillery and mortars, and they have been using them to good effect, dropping their mortar-bombs and shells with considerable accuracy. The rebels were obliged to withdraw more than once. But they are not easily beaten.