No Friends in Sight: Libya's Rebels Routed Once More

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

A man on the highway between the Libyan towns of Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad

On a normal day, residents of Bin Jawad say, there is nothing remarkable about their sunny seaside town. Spread over desert hills sloping toward an azure Mediterranean Sea, Bin Jawad has a mostly apolitical Bedouin population. "It's a quiet town," says Salah, an engineer who lives in the town, which is barely a mile long from east to west. "Most of the people work in the oil companies nearby."

But for the second time in less than a month, it's also the town where the ambitions of Libya's rebels run smack against the merciless reality of war. At the beginning of the week, the rebels — emboldened by allied air strikes and a war that seemed to be shifting suddenly in their favor — had pushed west into Bin Jawad. About 90 miles (140 km) from Sert, the hometown and regime stronghold of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, rebel fighters and commanders boasted that it was only a matter of time before that city was theirs too. "There is a 90% possibility that we'll enter Sert today," one fighter, Abdallah Bayou, said on Monday, even as the rebels pulled back under a barrage of missile fire. "They have no gasoline, no supplies," he said of the government forces up ahead. Another group of fighters had tied a live ram next to their truck-mounted machine gun as they barreled toward the front line; they said they planned to slaughter and eat it in celebration upon arrival in Gaddafi's stronghold.

The sheep will live to see at least several more days. Perhaps it will have a long life. By Tuesday afternoon, it was the rebels' turn to flee again — in a tangled, panicked traffic jam of gun trucks and civilian cars — as Gaddafi's forces pounded them once again with a barrage of missile fire and sniper shots. It was a familiar scene, and Bin Jawad may yet become a most familiar front line. "They hit us with a Grad missile," says Ali Adel Sherif, 19, whose friend was carried into the emergency room in the nearby town of Ras Lanuf on a stretcher, his face and arms bloodied by shrapnel. "It came from behind us in the hills and we could hear sniper fire."

There was another factor. While there were reports of allied air strikes, TIME saw no sign of fighter-jet support as incoming shells from Gaddafi's loyalists rained down on the rebels. "Sarkozy betrayed us," shouted one man on Tuesday afternoon, referring to the French President whose aircraft saved Benghazi from almost certain reconquest by Gaddafi last week. "There are no airplanes," screamed another.

It had been a see-saw battle to hold Bin Jawad — one the rebels would eventually lose. After a brief initial retreat eastward at midday, the rebels pushed back with their own barrage of missiles and machine-gun fire, and fought their way into Bin Jawad once again — only to come under a heavy bombardment from the road ahead, and simultaneous sniper fire from the hills to the south and the town to the north. As a missile exploded next to the western gate to the town, and bullets rained onto the sandbanks next to the road, fighters threw themselves into cars and trucks, nearly running each other over as they fled. "We were just talking and we saw someone fall," says Osama al-Gubayli, a fighter from Benghazi, who was standing near the western gate of Bin Jawad moments before the onslaught. When he approached the fallen man, he saw that he had been shot in the chest. "We don't know who shot him — if it was from inside the city or in front of us." Others say they were attacked from the sea as well.

The attack from multiple fronts left many feeling stunned. Bin Jawad, however innocuous it may seem in the sunshine, is not a town that Gaddafi intends to lose. And indeed, it may prove to be a trickier battle zone than the previous towns the rebels have conquered. The reasons may run deeper than Gaddafi's heavy weapons. "Bin Jawad didn't want to support us from the beginning," says Fayez Mohamed Zwei, a fighter from Ajdabiyah. "The whole east was with us except Bin Jawad."

Indeed, Bin Jawad may be the first town in the rebels' westward push where many of the townspeople are not on their side. Treason is a word the fighters use liberally in describing the town. And conspicuously, there are no local fighters among them. "No one is from Bin Jawad," says Khaled Mohamed, a policeman from Ajdabiyah, of the men gathered around him. Like many of the other fighters, he believes the locals receive money from Gaddafi (in fact, residents say that Gaddafi's military trucked in food aid from Sert in recent weeks). "There is treason in Bin Jawad."

The treason, they say, dates back to their first traumatic experience at Bin Jawad on March 6, which lasted for about 24 hours. At the time, Bin Jawad became the most distant front line in the rebels' then fast-paced westward advancement. But they say the town never came out to join them — instead fleeing to the hills, or raising white flags as a trick to lure them into gunfire. When the government struck back — aided, rebels say, by the townspeople — the ensuing bombardment resulted in a disastrous retreat over nearly 400 miles (640 km) that took the regime's forces right to the doorstep of the rebels' stronghold, Benghazi. Had it not been for the allied air strikes, most rebels say, their revolution might have been crushed entirely.

Three weeks later, Bin Jawad is largely empty. "Once the rebels got to Ajdabiyah, everyone left to the desert," says one resident who declined to give his name. "We thought Gaddafi's army would take position here, and there would be a battle like the last time." He adds, "People are afraid so they're staying indoors."

Salah, the engineer, says he sided with the rebels. "The people who stayed here during these events support the revolution," he says. But he believes less than a third of the residents have stayed put. "If you go past the hill, you will see them in tents," he says of the rest, pointing south into the hilly desert beyond the main road. Others continued to pour out on Tuesday, packed hastily into vans and trucks, speeding east toward Ras Lanuf and Ajdabiyah.

The rebels did not take chances with a town they could no longer trust. After pushing back into Bin Jawad on Tuesday afternoon, the rebels quickly set about searching the streets and homes of the town for hidden troops, mercenaries and traitors. "Alley to alley, house to house," shouted one man at the fighters as trucks veered down Bin Jawad's unpaved, bumpy side streets. He used Gaddafi's own words — an infamous threat from an earlier speech that is often repeated in the rebel-held east. It's meant to mock the Colonel; it's even graffitied on the walls. But as the rebels tread into unwelcome territory, they seem to mean it in much the way Gaddafi did — in a kind of unrelenting and paranoid door-to-door campaign to rout their enemies. "Search the houses," another man shouted, as fighters ran down Bin Jawad's alleys and took up position behind walls. Gunfire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades reverberated from within the town. At least one house was set on fire after rebels located a suspected Gaddafi loyalist there.

By evening, smoke rose from the town, as new homes and buildings became collateral damage in the ever shifting front line and a rapid exchange of missiles and artillery shells from both sides. By late Tuesday night, Gaddafi's forces had pushed the rebels back all the way to the town of Brega, retaking Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf in between.

Even with the help of allied air strikes and gradually improving rebel coordination, local support may indeed become key to pushing the fight further west in what is shaping up to be another stalemate for the Libyan civil war. In the meantime, the desert highway stretching between strategic Ajdabiyah and the ever valuable Sert appears poised to become the scene of a long-term front line. "God knows" when Sert will finally fall, says Colonel Mohamed Samir, a rebel commander in Ras Lanuf, pointing to the sky. "We'll start with Bin Jawad. Sert is another level," he says. "The thing is we're trying not to hit the families. A few are in there. But they're leaving."