March of the Volunteers: Can Libya's Rebels Take Tripoli?

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Yuri Kozyre / NOOR for TIME

Volunteers to the resistance gather at the Salmani weapons maintenance depot in Benghazi.

Updated: 5 a.m. E.T., March 2, 2011

The sounds of semiautomatic-rifle fire, antiaircraft fire and the occasional odd explosion break up the relative evening quiet in Libya's rebel-held east. It's just youth celebrating, the residents of Benghazi say, celebrating eastern Libya's liberation with their new assault rifles looted from military and security installations in the chaos of February's uprising. But when a convoy of pickup trucks full of young men and mounted with antiaircraft guns moved through the city on Tuesday night, it became increasingly clear that the gunshots are more than just celebratory.

Over the past few days, groups of men have poured into Benghazi's military camps and bases to sign up for the long fight to take down Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and take Libya's eastern revolution to the country's west. At camps scattered across the city on March 1, men ranging from teenagers to retirement age — including at least one man with a crutch — gathered beneath a clear blue sky. They signed their names and blood types to clipboards, learned how to march and practiced firing Kalashnikovs and antiaircraft guns into the sky. "We are preparing ourselves to attack them," says Hakim Abdullah Hassan, an ex-soldier and civil engineer who is training at one of the camps. He's talking about Gaddafi and his stronghold in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. "When our leader in Benghazi tells us to move, we will move."

Indeed, "free" east Libya is readying its forces. The opposition says it has formed a military committee to oversee the fight against Gaddafi. And some say they have already recruited more than 5,000 volunteers for military training. Nevertheless, on Wednesday morning there were reports that pro-Gaddafi forces had retaken the town of Bregga, where a major oil field is located, and residents of Ajdabiya, some 100 miles (160 km) south of Benghazi, said that a plane had targeted an arms dump. Residents in Ajdabiya reported that trucks of armed militiamen were moving toward Ajdabiya from Bregga. (Rebel forces — speaking from Benghazi — have since said that they've retaken Bregga, though that remains unconfirmed.)

In light of Wednesday's developments, even amid the enthusiasm for confrontation that seems to be rippling through the east and patches in the west, it remains unclear who will ultimately lead the push if a march on Tripoli is to occur. A number of high-ranking commanders have spoken authoritatively about the forces, but no one man has been named the commander. "We have a military council at the court, and this council decides the next step," explains Colonel Abdel Salaam al-Mahdawi, who has been busy training volunteers. Asked who heads the council, he says, "Abdel Fatah Younis" — Gaddafi's former Interior Minister, who the rebels say has defected but who has yet to take a public stand with the revolutionary forces.

"No, that's not right," his aide cuts in.

The colonel shrugs. "Well, then I don't know who."

In addition, it appears unresolved what, exactly, everyone is training for. Although most of the volunteers say they are ready to march on Tripoli (and some commanders claim that some 2,000 have already departed), others say their role is purely defensive for the time being. "We are a peaceful people. We just want to defend [the city] for now. Then the other things will come," says al-Mahdawi, as he supervises dozens of volunteers at a Benghazi maintenance base, cleaning and greasing heavy machine guns and belts of ammunition. "Mr. Gaddafi said he will use all the forces he has, so we have to be prepared. He's crazy."

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