x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Qaddafi ambushes push rebels into first major retreat

First rebel retreat in three-week uprising, as Muammar Qaddafi's regime claims to have retaken key towns, but opposition forces say that despite many dead and wounded they will regroup and fight on.

A wounded fighter is brought into the Ras Lanuf Hospital from the battle in Ben Jawad yesterday.
A wounded fighter is brought into the Ras Lanuf Hospital from the battle in Ben Jawad yesterday.

BENGHAZI // Qaddafi loyalist forces ambushed rebels advancing on the coastal town of Bin Jawad with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades yesterday, forcing the insurgents in east Libya into their first major retreat of the three-week-old rebellion.

However, claims by the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces that they had retaken key towns in a major offensive were swiftly denied by the rebels.

The rebels had occupied Bin Jawad on Saturday and then withdrew, allowing army units to take over houses and mount an ambush yesterday when the rebels returned in anticipation of an advance westward towards Sirte, Col Qaddafi's hometown and stronghold.

The army, supported by aerial bombardments, forced rebels back to one of their own strongholds further east, Ras Lanuf.

Doctors and other staff at Ras Lanuf hospital said two dead and 22 injured had arrived from fighting in Bin Jawad, about 160km east of Sirte.

Witnesses said there were many dead and wounded, including civilians, who could not be reached because of the fighting. One man said he had seen a building hit by a bomb. Sustained artillery fire could still be heard on the road to Bin Jawad late last night.

It was the first time since the uprising against the Libyan leader began on February 15 that the rebels have admitted conceding ground to his forces.

Asked what he had seen, one fighter returning wounded from Bin Jawad to Ras Lanuf replied: "Death." Distraught and bandaged, he would not say any more.

Other rebels described scenes of horror "like Vietnam".

"Every kind of weapon is being used. We've retreated from an ambush and we are going to regroup," said one fighter, Ali Othman. "Qaddafi's forces attacked with aircraft and shot from on top of the houses," said another, Ibrahim Boudabbous.

"The wounded people shouted at us to get their children out. We left the dead," said Khaled Abdul Karim.

"I saw civilians shouting and screaming. They had been pushed out of their homes. I saw about 20 to 25 people who looked dead, they were civilians or rebels," said Ashraf Youssef.

Rebels said they had shot down a helicopter. Three fighters said they had seen it falling into the sea.

On the road from the coastal highway to Ras Lanuf, a poster showed a bloody body with gaping wounds, saying in English: "Bare chests versus aircrafts." The rebels have called on western powers to impose a no-fly zone over the country to protect them from Colonel Qaddafi's planes.

The uprising against Colonel Qaddafi, which began just days after former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted by protesters in neighbouring Egypt, is now a de facto civil war and the bloodiest episode in the Middle East's wave of unrest.

The seesawing battles for towns and oil installations along the coastline signalled that Libya's fighting could be prolonged, compared with the ousting of Mr Mubarak after just 18 days. The protesters-turned-rebels, backed by mutinous army units and armed with weaponry seized from storehouses, are going on the offensive to try to topple Colonel Qaddafi's 41-year-old regime. The government said yesterday that it had driven the rebels, who took over eastern Libya over a week ago, all the way back to their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.

Some of the day's heaviest fighting was in the city of Misrata, 200km east of Tripoli. Residents said pro-Qaddafi troops punched into the city with mortar and tank artillery and were pushed out five hours later by rebel forces. A doctor said at least 18 people, including a baby, were killed in the fighting.

In Tripoli, thousands celebrated as state television reported that government forces had taken control of Misrata, the key oil centre of Ras Lanuf and even Tobruk near the Egyptian border.

Authorities tried to explain the unusually heavy gunfire that erupted before dawn by saying it was a celebration of "victories". After the gunfire eased, thousands of Qaddafi supporters poured into Tripoli's central square for a rally, waving green flags, firing guns in the air and holding up banners in support of the regime.

Hundreds drove past Colonel Qaddafi's residence, waving flags and cheering. Armed men in plainclothes were standing at the gates, also shooting in the air.

But the rebels were still clearly in control of Benghazi and the key oil complex of Ras Lanuf, which they took on Friday night.

"They're all rebels here," a witness in Ras Lanuf said. A warplane struck Ras Lanuf yesterday but no one was hurt.

A rebel officer, Colonel Bashir al Moghrabi, told reporters in Ras Lanuf that rebels were also still in control in Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, where fierce battles took place on Saturday.

A member of the rebel-appointed council in Tobruk, Fateh Faraj, also said claims that town had fallen were "not true".

In Bengazhi, people admitted being terrified at the prospect of Colonel Qaddafi's soldiers and loyalists reaching the town.

"Some people in Benghazi are scared," said Malek al Maghreby's, a restaurant owner. "They think Muammar Qaddafi's supporters will come back."

Certain areas of Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, looked abandoned: most of the windows were shuttered, either for fear of looting or because their occupants left town. Schools and universities remain closed and construction sites were deserted.

The new administrators of the city were struggling to keep the town running smoothly. Volunteers were picking up rubbish and directing traffic.

Celebrations are still taking place every afternoon in front of the Benghazi's courthouse, which houses the rebellion's leadership.

Colonel Lamine Abdelwahab, a member of the local rebel military council in the city, said they had "received contact from members of the Gaddafda tribe" - Col Qaddafi's tribe - "in Sirte who want to negotiate". But he added: "There will be no negotiations. They are asking us what we want. We say we don't want Qaddafi."

Colonel Abdelwahab said soldiers belonging to the Ferjan tribes were executed for refusing to fight rebels. The Ferjan tribe in Sirte "are joining the rebellion because of this atrocity. The problem is that they are unarmed. Only the Gaddafda were armed by the regime".

Colonel Qaddafi may have more than 20,000 fighters in Sirte, he said, adding that the city houses the Saadi, or Son of Qaddafi, battalion that includes four brigades, in addition to his armed tribe members.

The US has moved military forces closer to Libya's shores to put military muscle behind its demand for Colonel Qaddafi to step down immediately. But Washington has expressed wariness about talk of imposing a no-fly zone over the North African nation to prevent the Libyan leader from using his warplanes to attack the population.

At the same time, the UN has imposed sanctions, and Libya's oil production has been seriously crippled by the unrest. The turmoil has caused oil prices to spike on international markets.

rscolari@thenational.ae

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