Running with The Rebels

Beating back Gaddafi's grab for a key Libyan oil town

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On March 2, in Brega, an oil-refinery town 100 miles (161 km) south of Benghazi, the sound of gunfire and sirens filled the air as the forces of Free Libya tried to blunt a counterattack by those loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. Late in the afternoon, the front line was the local university, which Gaddafi's planes had bombed and where regime forces were surrounded by the rebels. Human Rights Watch director of emergencies Peter Bouckaert, who was at the front earlier in the day, told Time that the rebels didn't really know how to operate rocket-propelled grenades when the fighting started. They were facing a reported 75 trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns. But the rebels had their own antiaircraft guns, even though they were just as inexperienced at handling them. By 5:45 p.m., word spread that the rebel forces had retaken the town. Celebratory gunfire filled the air. Then, about 20 minutes later, the Gaddafi regime launched an air strike on the celebration. The fight was not over.

Two weeks after the first demonstrations against Gaddafi's rule, Libya is rapidly sliding into a genuine civil war, with all of war's usual accompaniments. In Brega's hospital, nurses cried as ambulances brought in fresh loads of wounded and dead. Those displaced by the fighting, many of them foreign nationals, flocked to the borders--Tunisia in the west and Egypt to the east--and relief agencies warned of a looming humanitarian crisis.

Within the ranks of those trying to get Gaddafi and his cronies to leave, arguments took place about whether outside assistance would be welcome. Munir, 27, in the back of a pickup and armed with a rifle with Osama bin Laden's picture stuck to it, said he did not want foreign forces in Libya but wouldn't mind an air strike on Gaddafi. Or weapons sent to the rebels, for that matter.

No nation is openly contemplating such a course. But a connected world does not find it easy to watch fighting, killing and fleeing anywhere and do nothing. The revolutions in the Middle East, so far, have been resolutely homegrown affairs. For the first time, there is an inkling that they may not remain that way.