Rebels retreat as Gaddafi forces take another town
Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi continued their march towards the opposition stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya yesterday, seizing another key oil town along the Mediterranean coast.
Witnesses said a ragtag army of rebel fighters withdrew in disarray from Brega under heavy aerial bombardment.
The past week has seen a string of rebel towns recaptured by government forces equipped with tanks and supported by warplanes.
Zawiyah to the west was reclaimed by Gaddafi's forces, and the deputy foreign minister said last night that leading al-Qa'ida members had been arrested in the town and would be put on show for the television cameras.
Yesterday, Gaddafi's forces were also edging closer to Misurata, the last major town in western Libya still in rebel hands. An army spokesman denied reports that soldiers from the Khamis Brigade, which was fighting to take control of Misurata, had defected. He added that outright force would not be needed to defeat rebels "because they just put their hands up and run away".
The loss of Brega was a major setback for the opposition, which last week held a swathe of eastern Libya but now fears a rapid assault on Benghazi, Libya's second city, and the prospect of a long, drawn-out guerrilla war.
"There's no uprising any more," said Nabeel Tijouri, whose machine gun had been destroyed in the fighting. "The other day we were in Ras Lanuf, then Brega; the day after tomorrow they will be in Benghazi."
Retreating fighters, mostly young volunteers, leapt into pick-ups mounted with anti-aircraft guns before racing along the coastal road towards Ajdabiya, a little more than 50 miles away, the gateway to the main rebel cities of Benghazi and Tobruk. Libyan state television later declared Brega "purged of the armed gangs".
The flat, empty terrain has left the rebels desperately exposed to the Libyan regime's superior firepower as they try to defend a series of road checkpoints.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the provisional rebel government in Benghazi, said that military units had been kept back from the front line to defend the city.
However, he said the opposition was out-gunned and would remain vulnerable without a no-fly zone and air strikes targeting Gaddafi's network of palaces and command centres.
Yesterday, mobile telephone networks in Benghazi went down, spreading panic that an attack was imminent.
"If they come then we will all be slaughtered.
"Hundreds of thousands will die," said one resident of the city, who asked not to be named.
Residents are buying weapons to defend their homes and families, sending the black market price of an AK47 rifle spiralling from a couple of hundred dollars to up to $2,000 (€1,430).
For now, though, the fighters and their leaders insist they will not give up. "We don't care how long it takes -- five years or 10 years.
"The gate has been opened," said Bashir Warshfani (30), a rebel in Brega before it fell. "If I die, my brother takes my place, if he dies, my neighbour.
"Gaddafi will only get this country when he kills us all." (©Daily Telegraph, London)