x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Libya's rebels fight village by village as strains show in Western alliance

Former adviser to the Libyan government says Qaddafi will continue to play for time and seek to demoralise and split the coalition: 'Qaddafi's mentality is that as long as my enemies haven't triumphed, I haven't lost.'

Libyan volunteers bury the bodies of six soldiers loyal to Muammar Gaddafi that were left behind after his forces were pushed back in the direction of Zlitan during fighting along the western front line, at a cemetery in the western Libyan city of Misrata yesterday. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
Libyan volunteers bury the bodies of six soldiers loyal to Muammar Gaddafi that were left behind after his forces were pushed back in the direction of Zlitan during fighting along the western front line, at a cemetery in the western Libyan city of Misrata yesterday. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

ZINTAN // Libyan rebels pushed deeper into government-held territory south of the capital yesterday, but their advance came as strains began to emerge in the Western alliance trying to topple Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

Fighters in the Western Mountains, a rebel stronghold about 150 kilometres south-west of Tripoli, built on gains made in the past few days by taking two villages from which pro-Qaddafi forces had for months been shelling rebel-held towns.

But the rebels are still a long way from Colonel Qaddafi's main stronghold in Tripoli, while their fellow fighters on the other two fronts, in Misurata and in eastern Libya, have made only halting progress against better-armed government troops.

"The revolutionaries now control Zawiyat al Babour and al Awiniyah after pro-Qaddafi forces retreated this morning from the two villages," said Abdulrahman, a rebel spokesman in the nearby town of Zintan.

"The [government] brigades had been positioned in those two villages for three months. They posed a real threat from there," he said by telephone from Zintan.

There were also reports that a Nato-led raid on a bus south of Tripoli yesterday killed 12 people. State television said the bus was hit at the entrance to the town of Kikla, "causing 12 of the passengers to be martyred," the report said.

Ties are becoming strained in the alliance, with some reluctant to commit additional resources needed to sustain the bombing mission in the coming months.

Adding to the pressure, Republicans in the US Congress are pressing president Barack Obama to explain the legal grounds on which he was keeping US forces involved in Libya without the authorisation of Congress.

Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen was expected to meet the British prime minister David Cameron in London later yesterday to discuss the operation.

A senior Nato commander appeared to raise questions about the alliance's ability to handle a long-term intervention.

"We are conducting this operation with all the means we have ... If the operation were to last long, of course, the resource issue will become critical," Gen Stephane Abrial said.

Saad Djebbar, a former legal adviser to the Libyan government, said that Colonel Qaddafi would continue to play for time and seek to demoralise and split the coalition.

"Qaddafi's mentality is that as long as my enemies haven't triumphed, I haven't lost," he said.

"The US stance, that the major outside role should be played by the Europeans and Arabs, sends the wrong signal. Qaddafi will be very encouraged by it. His line is 'We are steadfast. We can wait it out.'"

"The concerns being raised in the British parliament and the US Congress, including questions like 'why are we spending so much?', will be of comfort to him," said Mr Djebbar.

Col Qaddafi has said he has no intention of leaving the country - an outcome which, with the military intervention so far failing to produce results, many Western policymakers see as the most realistic way out of the conflict.

The Libyan leader has described the rebels as criminals and al Qa'eda militants, and called the Nato intervention an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya's oil.

Though under attack from Nato warplanes and rebel fighters, Col Qaddafi's troops have showed they are still a potent force.

A rebel spokesman in Nalut, at the other end of the Western Mountains range from Zintan, said Col Qaddafi's forces had been shelling Nalut and the nearby border crossing into Tunisia. The rebels depend on that crossing to bring in supplies.

"Qaddafi's forces bombarded Nalut ... Over 20 Grad rockets landed in the town. They bombarded from their positions ... around 20km east of Nalut," said the spokesman, called Kalefa.

On Tuesday, the rebels tried to advance in the east of Libyan, setting their sights on the oil town of Brega to extend their control over the region, but they were unable to break through.

In Misurata, Libya's third-biggest city about 200km east of Tripoli, rebels have been inching slowly west towards the neighbouring town of Zlitan, but have frequently had to flee after coming under artillery fire.

The rebels there have expressed frustration that Nato is not more active at taking out Col Qaddafi's forces there, and is not doing more to co-ordinate with fighters on the ground.

On Tuesday, some rebels who had advanced towards Zlitan pulled back after Nato dropped leaflets warning of strikes by attack helicopters.

The leaflets were meant for forces loyal to Col Qaddafi, but they landed on ground the rebels had taken in the past few days, leaving many rebels fearful Nato helicopters would attack them by mistake.

At a command post on the outskirts of Misurata, a rebel named Jakup said: "Do I go back or do I go forward? Is it [the leaflet] for Qaddafi or for us?"