x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Libyan rebels plead for air strikes

Fighters appeal to foreign governments, 'Help us to fight Qaddafi's mercenaries', as Qaddafi regime warplanes launch bombs and six die in two-day battle for key oil town of Brega.

A burned-out vehicle on the side of a road leading to Brega.
A burned-out vehicle on the side of a road leading to Brega.

BREGA // Rebel leaders called on foreign governments to launch air strikes against mercenaries fighting for the Qaddafi regime yesterday as they fought off a second day of attacks on a key coastal oil facility.

At least six people have been killed in the two-day battle for Brega, the first major regime counteroffensive against the opposition-held eastern half of Libya.

Shells splashed in the Mediterranean as government jets pounded the town and a warplane bombed a beach where rebel fighters were charging over the dunes.

Rebels manned anti-aircraft guns and mounted machineguns on pick-up trucks after a Libyan plane dropped two bombs near the town's oil refinery early yesterday.

Throughout the day rebels with little military training shored up the defences of Brega, fearing a new onslaught amid reports of pro-Qaddafi troop movements from the south and west.

In the town of Ajdabiya, 150km to the west of Benghazi, dozens marched in a funeral procession carrying five coffins to the cemetery for burial, firing rifles into the air.

"Blood of martyrs will not be spilt in vain," "Qaddafi get out, Libyans don't want you" and "Qaddafi you're crazy", the mourners shouted.

In Tripoli, Col Qaddafi vowed: "We will fight until the last man and woman." He lashed out against Europe and the United States for their pressure on him to step down.

"We will not accept an intervention like that of the Italians that lasted decades," Col Qaddafi said. "We will not accept a similar American intervention. This will lead to a bloody war and thousands of Libyans will die if America and Nato enter Libya."

In Washington, Barack Obama, the US president, insisted yesterday that Col Qaddafi leave office, declaring he had lost his authority to lead.

Mr Obama also announced that US military aircraft would play a humanitarian role by flying Egyptians who had fled Libya home to Egypt from makeshift camps in Tunisia.

In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the stronghold of the rebellion, Col Qaddafi's opponents announced the formation of an "interim national government council" in anticipation of the Libyan leader's fall. They named Col Qaddafi's former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who joined the uprising, as the council's head.

The council called for foreign governments to carry out air strikes against non-Libyan African mercenaries that the opposition says Col Qaddafi has used in his militias to put down the uprising. A council spokesman, Abdel Hafiz Hoga, said the council urged air strikes on the "strongholds of the mercenaries … used against civilians and people".

For the past week pro-Qaddafi forces have been focusing on the west, securing his stronghold in Tripoli and trying to take back nearby rebel-held cities with only mixed success.

But the foray east against Brega appeared to stumble. The pro-Qaddafi forces initially recaptured the oil facilities on Wednesday morning, when a large force of Qaddafi loyalists in about 50 SUVS, some mounted with machine guns, descended on Brega, 740km east of Tripoli along the Mediterranean. The force caught a small opposition contingent guarding the site by surprise and it fled, said Ahmed Dawas, an anti-Qaddafi fighter at a checkpoint outside the port.

The pro-Qaddafi forces seized the port, airstrip and the oil facilities where about 4,000 personnel work, as regime warplanes hit an ammunition depot on the outskirts of the nearby rebel-held city of Ajdabiya.

Then the opposition counterattacked. Anti-Qaddafi fighters with automatic weapons sped out of Ajdabiya in pickup trucks, heading for Brega, 70km away. They retook the oil facilities and airstrip.

By the afternoon the regime fighters had fled the oil facilities and holed up in a nearby university campus, where they came under siege by rebel fighters. Machine gun and automatic weapons fire rattled in the air, and shells lobbed from the campus went over the anti-Qaddafi side to splash in the Mediterranean.

At one point a regime warplane swooped overhead and an explosion was heard. A witness said it struck an empty stretch of dunes near the battle, sending a plume of sand into the air but causing no injuries in an apparent attempt to intimidate the anti-Qaddafi side. But opposition citizen militias poured into the battle, arriving from Ajdabiya and armed with assault rifles. They moved through the dunes along the beach against the campus next to a pristine blue-water Mediterranean. Those without guns picked up bottles and put wicks in them to make firebombs.

At least six opposition fighters were killed and 18 others wounded, their bodies covered with sand thrown up by shells bursting in the dunes, doctors at Brega hospital said. Angry crowds gathered around them at the hospital, chanting: "The blood of martyrs will not go in vain."

In the late afternoon the pro-Qaddafi force fled the campus, and opposition fighters were seen combing through the university buildings.

However, the formation of a unified military command and a full-scale attack against pro-government targets, let alone a coordinated march on Tripoli, does not seem imminent.

Col Tarek Saad Hussein, a leader of the rebel force, confirmed that taking Tripoli was the rebels' goal.

"I cannot give numbers. I cannot explain our plans, but I can say we gave the order to march towards Tripoli," Col Hussein said. However, the rebel force still does not seem to have a strategy. Many young people seem eager to fight, but they are disorganised.

Faras Lashrash, 23, a university student and member of the Libyan national rugby team, who arrived in Brega from Benghazi on Wednesday, said: "We are now trying to regroup, getting everything we can, from weapons to transport.

"The civilians know how to work a Kalashnikov or a rifle, but not how to use the advanced weapons," said Mr Lashrash, who was wearing torn military fatiques and had streaked his face with grease.

"I went to enlist in an army base. They told me there was no time for training because the Qaddafi supporters were taking Brega. They taught me how to load and unload a gun, and here I am." He said he had heard that thousands of young men "are already going westward".

Mohammed Adraif, a soldier unloading artillery from a truck, said: "There's not a lot of coordination between us and the armed youth. The military was supposed to be in front of the armed civilians, but actually the protesters are leading the way."

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse