Gaddafi's Victories Highlight Rebels' Daunting Challenge

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Libyan rebels battle forces loyal to Gaddafi in Ras Lanuf, March 11.

Until Friday, this oil-refinery town in East Libya was the front line in the nascent civil war — a place of giddy hopes for freedom and a new democracy, and for ending Muammar Gaddafi's nearly 42 years in power. Now it bears the painful signs of a decisive crushing of Libya's rebel forces by Gaddafi's military. The small hospital building on the edge of town sits empty, so hurriedly abandoned that crucial supplies like syringes and surgical bandages lie strewn across front steps and lobby, apparently left behind in the rebels' frantic escape. "They took all the patients and everyone ran away to Benghazi," says Omar Zawawi, 57, a security guard in the hospital and one of the sole residents still in Ras Lanuf, which houses Libya's biggest oil refinery, but which felt like a ghost town on Saturday. "Tomorrow we will begin to reorganize the hospital, and soon we hope we'll be working again," he says, standing near a trail of fresh blood splattered on the lobby floor.

How quickly the rebels can regroup is another question. On Sunday government forces pounded the oil terminal of Brega, 90 miles east of here, forcing out the rebels and pushing the front line further back, according to Libya's state-run television. If the regime's forces succeed in taking the key junction of Ajdabiya next, about 50 miles further, it is possible that Gaddafi could opt to bypass the rebel headquarters in Benghazi and aim for the Egyptian border, near Tobruk, so trapping the anti-government fighters in a pincer, with no land route out. Milad Hussein, head of the Libyan Armed Forces' Revolutionary Courses department, told reporters in Tripoli on Sunday that the military was on the move and expects to end the insurgency quickly. "The movement now is toward Benghazi," he said, saying that there had been "lots of arrests" during "cleansing and mopping up" operations in former rebel-held towns.

Traveling hundreds of miles through Gaddafi's tribal stronghold along Libya's central Mediterranean coast shows the daunting obstacles to a rebel victory across this vast terrain — especially if Western leaders vote against a no-fly zone. On Saturday government officials flew about 80 foreign journalists from Tripoli to Gaddafi's birthplace of Sert, an hour's flight from the capital, to trumpet the regime's battle victories during the previous two days. There it was clear that pitted against Gaddafi's ability to deploy fighter jets over the area, rebels face potential disaster if they dare to move again across the huge open distances.

From Sert's modern, international airport, we were driven three hours east along the pastoral coastal road, which could have been rural Greece, trimmed with dandelions and lavender, a few hamlets interspersed with far longer stretches of sheep, olive and fruit farms. On the coach bus, the state-run radio station blasted patriotic rap songs intercut with Gaddafi's Feb. 22 speech, in which he vowed to crush the rebels "street by street, alley by alley."

Some of that battering is evident in Bin Jawwad, 20 miles west of Ras Lanuf and about 100 miles from Sert. There, the police station, school building and houses along the road have been battered by tank shells and some rocket fire, caved in by the bitter two-day battle; almost all the residents have fled to Sert, according to the few residents who remain. A rocket launcher sits burned and crumpled by the roadside. "If the army had not come the whole town would have been destroyed," said Abdul Salam Mohamed, 19, who said he and his family had hunkered down at home for two days, terrified, as the battle raged outside. His friend, Jalal Lamil, 20, described the town's sense of relief when government forces arrived to drive out the rebels; residents all spoke within earshot of government handlers, and so refrained from even subtle criticisms of Gaddafi. "The gangs [rebels] threatened to kill people if we didn't bring them food," Lamil said.

Despite that, the rebels held Ras Lanuf for six days, determined to push West toward Sert. They appeared to have fought hard at Bin Jawwad, before retreating to Ras Lanuf, which shows signs of mass flight rather than heavy battle. Within Ras Lanuf's fenced-off refinery area, a fire rages from an oil storage tank, its black plume stretching miles across the horizon. Officials told us that the rebels had blown up the tank as they fled, while the anti-government National Transition Council has said the tank was struck by a fighter jet; it is also possible that it was hit in error during the battle.

The entrance to Ras Lanuf is littered with abandoned wooden ammunition boxes, mattresses and blankets, used by the rebels. Now, the only armed force in the oil town was a group of about 25 volunteers, many of whom told journalists that they had traveled from Sabha, Gaddafi's tribal stronghold in the Sahara Desert; they arrived in Ras Lanuf in open pick-up trucks, which by Saturday evening were loaded with blankets, folding mattresses and boxes of explosives, in readiness for the front. As the journalists arrived in Ras Lanuf on Saturday, one volunteer fighter ran over to a wall where anti-government graffiti had been whitewashed, and spray-painted on it: "42 years of accomplishment."

But whether Gaddafi will see his 42nd anniversary in power, on Sept. 1, could depend on the outcome of the talks in Washington, Brussels and the U.N. about what military action to take in Libya. Gaddafi's powerful son Saif al-Islam told TIME in an interview on Thursday night that he believed "the big war is over," following victories in Bin Jawwad and Ras Lanuf. From now on, he told me, the government would slice away at the rebels' morale with "small, very small battles."