Libyan rebels battle Gaddafi forces in Brega

Libyan rebels battle Gaddafi forces in Brega

Libyan rebel fighters, one on crutches, are seen near the front line east of Brega on Sunday. The Libyan rebel movement that controls the country’s eastern half wants to install a parliamentary democracy across the country once they topple the regime of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

April 04, 2011, Monday/ 16:55:00

Warplanes flew over Brega on Sunday as rebels fought troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi for control of the east Libyan oil town, rebel fighters said. Near the eastern gate of Brega, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 25 kilometers (15 miles), aircraft and the thud of explosions and machinegun fire could be heard.

After weeks of shelling and encirclement, Gaddafi’s forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels’ hold on Misrata. Rebels say they still control the city center and the port, but government troops have pushed into the center. The rebel leadership called for a NATO-led air assault

Black smoke rose further west and hundreds of cars carrying volunteer rebel fighters streamed away from the town. Later, half a dozen rockets struck near the gate.

Rebels waiting there held their ground while the silhouettes of men and trucks could be seen scouting the desert far beyond the road. Four rockets burst from their launchers and zipped across the wasteland toward Brega.

“Those planes that circled last night didn’t hit anything,” said rebel fighter Osama Abdullah, suggesting the absence of air strikes was the result of NATO taking command of the coalition forces from France, the United States and Britain.

A Western coalition air strike killed 13 rebels late on Friday near Brega’s eastern gate. The rebel leadership called the bombing an unfortunate mistake and said air strikes were still needed against Gaddafi’s better-armed units. A friend of Abdullah who gave his name as Youssef said: “We need weapons that can fight against the tanks and Grads [rockets] that Gaddafi has.”

Comments from rebel volunteer fighters near the gate marking Brega’s eastern limit suggested that better trained anti-Gaddafi army units continue to battle government forces around the town’s university 15 kilometers to the west, without any clear outcome.

Rebels reorganizing

After weeks of shelling and encirclement, Gaddafi’s forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels’ hold on Misrata. Rebels say they still control the city center and the port, but government troops have pushed into the center.

One Benghazi-based rebel said food supplies were acutely low in Misrata. “There are severe food shortages and we call on humanitarian organizations to help,” said the rebel called Sami, who said he was in regular contact with a Misrata resident.

Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified because Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from the city, 200 kilometers (130 miles) east of Tripoli.

As well as laying siege to Misrata, Gaddafi’s troops have reversed a rebel advance in the east and are mopping up resistance in the mountainous southwest of Tripoli.

Government forces shelled the small town of Yafran, southwest of the capital on Sunday, killing two people, Arabiya television reported, quoting a witness.

But in the east. the rebels said they had restructured their forces to end the pendulum swing of their euphoric advance in the wake of Western air strikes followed by chaotic headlong retreat in the face of government artillery.

“We are reorganizing our ranks. We have formed our first brigade. It is entirely formed from ex-military defectors and people who’ve come back from retirement,” Former Air Force Major Jalid al-Libie told Reuters in Benghazi.

Asked about numbers, he said he could not reveal that, but added, “it’s quality that matters.”

The aim was for the trained force to steel resistance of the many volunteers so the rebel army could hold ground. “Before the end of the week you will see a different kind of fighting and that will tip the balance,” said Libie, a former fighter pilot.

The rebel leadership called for NATO-led air assault to continue despite 13 rebel fighters being killed in a strike as they tried to take control of the eastern oil town of Brega. A Reuters correspondent visiting the scene of Friday’s air strike saw at least four burned-out vehicles, including an ambulance, by the road near the eastern entrance to Brega.

Men prayed at freshly dug graves covered by the rebel red, black and green flag nearby. Most blamed a Tripoli agent for drawing the “friendly fire.”

But some gave a different account. “The rebels shot up in the air and the alliance came and bombed them. We are the ones who made the mistake,” said a fighter who did not give his name.

A rebel spokesman, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters the leadership still wanted and needed allied air strikes. “You have to look at the big picture. Mistakes will happen. We are trying to get rid of Gaddafi and there will be casualties, although of course it does not make us happy.”

Crisis team

Hundreds of mostly young, inexperienced volunteers were seen fleeing east from Brega toward the town of Ajdabiyah after coming under heavy mortar and machinegun fire.

A contingent of more experienced and better organized rebel units initially held their ground in Brega, but with most journalists forced east, it was unclear whether they had remained inside the town or had pulled back into the desert.

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