Gaddafi Repulsed: The Rebels Hold Brega, for Now

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

A Libyan rebel celebrates next to a burning vehicle in the town of Brega, March 2.

Updated: 1:55 p.m. E.T. March 2, 2011

On Wednesday, TIME's Abigail Hauslohner joined several other print journalists at around midday to travel first to Ajdabiyah, about 100 miles south of the rebel capital Benghazi, and then to Brega, the oil refinery town that is the latest front in the civil war between the revolutionaries and the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Hauslohner has been sending her updates to TIME via SMS, texting being the most efficient, if not the only way, to get reports from the area. This story will be updated throughout the day.

In Brega, the sound of gunfire and sirens fill the air as ambulances rush through the streets of the oil refinery town as the forces of "Free Libya" try to blunt a counter-attack by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who is intent on taking back lost territory. Witnesses told TIME that the battle had taken up a 150 kilometer stretch between Brega and the next significant town to the west, Ras Lanuf. At 5:30 p.m. Libya time, the battle front was the local university in Brega, which Gaddafi's planes had already bombed from the air, and where regime forces were surrounded by the rebels. Human Rights Watch director of emergencies Peter Bouckert, who was at the front lines with the "Free Libya" forces 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 off against what was reported to Gaddafi forces including 75 trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. But the rebels were reinforced with their own anti-aircraft guns and, even though they were just as inexperienced at handling them, seemed then to get better control of the ground battle. By a quarter to 6 p.m., word spread that the "Free Libyan" forces had retaken the town from the regime, including the university and the western section where much of the fighting has taken place. Celebratory gunfire filled the air. But about 20 minutes later, the regime launched an airstrike against the celebration. Meanwhile, dozens of trucks continued to move reinforcements to Brega. The fight is definitely not over.

It appeared as if the ambulances were also moving rebel fighters to the front. As the battle for the university was taking place, a man at the hospital gets out of an ambulance: he is wearing both army clothes and a white medical jacket. Brega's hospital is in chaos. Some ambulances were taking casualties all the way to Ajdabiyah, more than 30 kilometers away. Volunteers from Ajdabiyah, on hand since 8 a.m., were bringing in medication and supplies. Paramedic Abdel Wahed Mohammed carried three dead and four wounded away from the clashes in his ambulance. He says he saw mercenaries kidnapping the wounded that the ambulances couldn't get to. He says those regime fighters "looked African." Dr. Abdel Fatah al-Maghrabi, who heads supplies management, scans the scene as the wounded are wheeled in on stretchers. "This is what Gaddafi did to us. Took our oil, takes our blood." Women nurses were in tears as, every 20 minutes or so, a new ambulance arrived with the injured or the dead.

One of the dead was a man whose apparently brand new ID says he was born in Niger. His citizenship, however, was given as Libyan and his address was Sert, Gaddafi's hometown and the main obstacle in any potential march by the rebel forces toward Tripoli in the western end of Libya. Again, the murmurs were that he was a mercenary — but that is the suspicion raised by almost every dark-skinned man in Libya today. At the hospital at about 5 p.m., TIME counted five dead and 16 wounded. But witnesses said the number of dead is probably higher than the bodies now in the hospital because a lot of bodies lay uncollected between Brega and Ras Lanuf.

Survivors of the battle, many hospitalized, have begun to sketch out details how the Gaddafi assault on Brega began. Abdel Nasser Said, 23, says he was one of about 60 "Free Libya" troops guarding a site belonging to the Sirte Oil Company when the installation was attacked by what he calls mercenaries at 3 a.m. on Wednesday morning. For hours, the rebel troops tried to stave off the attack with stones and light weapons. Said himself was injured at 11 a.m. in the afternoon when an RPG detonated, eight hours after the fighting began. He was later taken to a hospital in Ajdabiyah.

Nasser Nouri Ali, 27, an employee at Brega's university, says he heard gunfire at 5 a.m. and quickly ran outside to join the fight, which took place on the beach by the school. He too was injured at around 2 p.m. by an anti-aircraft shell. Ali says the defenders of Brega numbered about 1,000, though many, himself included, did not have weaponry. He says the regime forces were made up of heavily-armed mercenaries. Ali, who has shrapnel wounds in various parts of his body, says 50 people died on the beach after war planes dropped bombs on the engagement.

When the day began in Benghazi, groups of Libyan men, volunteers in the rebel militia, had broken away from training camp in the rebel capital, after just two days of preparation, impatient to head to battle after reports of air strikes attacks on Ajdabiyah and air strikes. They got into trucks and headed to Ajdabiyah. It was unclear at the time how well armed they are or if they were armed.

Near Ajdabiyah, on the road that forks toward Brega, a media convoy passed a checkpoint that locals said had been targeted from the air. There was evidence of a rocket in the sand. By 3:30 p.m. Libya time, the convoy got to a checkpoint five kilometers west of Ajdabiyah, about 30 km from Brega. The scene was anarchy. Hundreds of men were massed, firing their weapons into the air. From Brega, TIME photographer Yuri Kozyrev, who had gone ahead with a group of photojournalists, reported that the local hospital was overwhelmed. At that point, people were saying that the regime had taken control of Brega's airport and bombed the university.

The checkpoint was secured by a few tanks and anti-aircraft guns. Meanwhile, men were toward the Brega in trucks loaded with rockets and launchers. The reports were that Gaddafi's "mercenaries" are using anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Munir, 27, sits in the back of a pick-up truck, armed with a rifle with Osama Bin Laden's picture stuck to it. (He's a fan.) He does not want foreign forces in Libya, he says, but wouldn't mind an air strike on Gaddafi. Or weapons sent to the rebels, for that matter. He's from Ajdabiyah and is here to defend his city. "If the Americans want to help us [with weapons] but stay out, it would be no problem. But if they want to invade, it will be a problem." His friend Mohammed Abdel Razzak cuts in: "If they bomb Gaddafi, they will do us a big favor." Munir agrees. "It wouldn't hurt."

Back in Benghazi, there had been similar ambivalence about foreign intervention. Mohamed Abdel Salaam, a retired engineer and a volunteer at the opposition headquarters in Benghazi. A political activist, he was jailed twice under Gaddafi. He says a no-fly zone is a top priority. "It's the least the international community can do. The international community should help this country. They should stop them (i.e., regime planes) from leaving the airport. He's a lunatic." Abdel Salaam says Gaddafi will kill the opposition without a no-fly zone. "Gaddafi is sending everyone to kill us and we are helpless. It's shameful for the international community."

He is, however, unsure whether west should provide weapons to the rebels, saying that he himself is "peaceful. Even if you gave me a gun I wouldn't use it." Still, he says, the revolutionaries " cannot fight the government with a militia." Says Abdel Salaam: "I'll be frank with you: I think 70 percent to 80 percent of Libyans don't want to go to battle. But if they are forced to, they will."

He is ambivalent about a foreign direct hit on Gaddafi. Still, he says: "I have heard a lot of people say they would like this." Later he reports that the revolutionary committee " have agreed to [support a foreign] air strike [on Gaddafi] as long as there are no civilian casualties." Said Iman Bughaigis, the opposition's spokesman in Benghazi: "I think there is a consensus that no one wants [foreign] troops on the ground. I think everyone — as a compromise — supports air strikes [on Gaddafi] under United Nations cover."

Amid the fighting in Brega, paramedic Abdel Wahed Mohammed spoke in practical terms. "Of course we need help from the outside," he says, "Because we have nothing. We have no weapons. We especially need help stopping the airstrikes."