Libya: Friendly Fire, Signs of Stalemate
April 2, 2011
At sunset on Friday, driving on the road that runs through Brega, I reached an intersection with perhaps a couple of hundred excited, mostly young fighters, who were firing their guns in the air. I drove on, as did a few of the rebels, until three incoming artillery explosions hit about a hundred metres in front of us, and we all wheeled around and turned back. At the intersection, some of the rebels had formed a sort of checkpoint, to screen those coming from the direction of Qaddafi’s lines, but they were squabbling over it . There were those who wanted to impose order, and those who didn’t. We eventually got through by yelling sahafi
, meaning “journalist.” There seemed none of the “real” military there whom we had seen imposing controls earlier in the day. That night, I heard that several rebels, most likely from among that same throng, had been killed mistakenly by an allied air strike, perhaps half an hour or forty-five minutes after I’d seen them. A friend among the ambulancemen called and told me that they’d found a mess of charred bodies; he was shocked by the scene, upset at the loss of a well-known doctor and others yet to be identified. There was speculation that something had set the rebels off and led them to fire their anti-aircraft weapons into the sky, which brought down the air strike.
Brega is really two towns, spread over an area of roughly three by six or seven miles, between the highway and the sea. “New Brega,” down behind the dunes, is a residential area for oil workers; “Old Brega,” past a university, consists of a refinery, another gated residential area, a small commercial strip, and a Red Crescent hospital. (The intersection was between them.) On Saturday, as far as I could learn, the entire Brega area was still being fought over, despite intermittent reports that the rebels had taken it. The trained military men among the rebels, who have become more noticeable in recent days, had newly strict roadblocks to keep journalist from the very front lines. They—and NATO—also want to keep the shabab out, to avoid incidents such as last’s night’s as well as the infiltration of their ranks by Qaddafi’s forces.
One volunteer fighter told me that special forces soldiers had been training him on artillery last month; now, he and other “new rebels” were being assigned to rearguard duties on new defensive lines being established around Benghazi and Adjabiya. I told him about the new controls I’d seen on the roads; he said that they were meant to show Americans that trained fighters were in control, and could receive weapons. He mentioned (this was reported later) that the rebels had confirmed Fatah Younis, Qaddafi’s former Interior Minister, as their maximum military leader after council meetings on Friday. I had seen Younis visiting the lines; the rebel I spoke to believed that he would “remain at the front henceforth.”
Word is also circulating that elite Qatari military men are in Benghazi, having arrived to instruct the Libyans in the use of new weapons that are arriving. The Qataris are emerging as brokers in this conflict—more willing than other Arab nations, who have been largely ineffectual, to acknowledge their involvement in the war alongside America and other Western countries. Acknowledgement of that support was on display as I went through the town of Al Bayda, east of Benghazi, where a crudely painted Qatari flag—white and dark red fields joined at a jagged line—was painted on a plaza wall, not far away from the French and the new (old) Libyan one. Al Jazeera, based in Qatar, has been sympathetic to the rebels, all the more so since the assassination of one of its cameramen in Benghazi a couple of weeks ago. They also have a crew in beleaguered Misurata (where CNN and AFP, too, have smuggled in people in the past few days).
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Misurata, situated between Sirt and Tripoli, is getting a pounding from Qaddafi’s forces, with at least several deaths every day there. A kind of Libyan Sarajevo situation developing, it seems, with parts of the city held by one side or the other as they continue to fight over other neighborhoods. The port is evidently in rebel hands, but it and its approaches are under fire from Qaddafi’s guns.
To the east, the battle for the Benghazi-Sirt road appears to be stalemating in the dunes around Brega, as both sides use other ruses and ploys to strengthen their hand and rally for whatever comes next.
Slide show: Our coverage of the protests in Libya.
Photograph by Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images.
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