x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Ordinary Libyan men lay down their lives for freedom

General in rebel army is killed in action, but opposition fighters hope pincer movement will allow them to advance to the capital.

General Ali Attallah Hadouth leads his unit in prayer before entering the battlefield. He was killed in combat on Wednesday. Tracey Shelton / The National
General Ali Attallah Hadouth leads his unit in prayer before entering the battlefield. He was killed in combat on Wednesday. Tracey Shelton / The National

MISURATA // As his men dropped to their knees in unison near the front line west of Misurata, General Ali Attallah Hadouth led them in prayer. Cries of "Allahu Akbar" merged with the crash of the rockets fired from Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's forces that were exploding on all sides. But not one of the fighters of the Wassatt El Medina group flinched as shrapnel landed metres away.

"We will die, all Libyan people, before we stop fighting Qaddafi," General Hadouth said after the prayers earlier this week. "To the last man inside his mother's womb, we will fight."

The past two days have seen the rebels make a concerted, two-pronged push towards the capital Tripoli, Colonel Qaddafi's stronghold. But the territorial gains have come at great cost. By Wednesday, General Hadouth, who was 61, was dead - he had been killed along with 20 rebel fighters that came under heavy rocket attack as they neared the town of Zlitan.

Yesterday morning, General Hadouth's men, who make up the Wassat El Medina unit, returned to the front, their determination making up for what the general had said was a lack of weapons. Unlike the enemy, his men fight for what they believe in, the former army officer had insisted before he was killed.

Few of those who took up the battle yesterday were professional fighters. From teenagers to old men, the rebels have come from all walks of life - students, lawyers, police, businessmen - and made similar journeys to Misurata.

"Before I had a master's in accounting," said Ahmed Elakhtel, who had worked in Malaysia for 11 years before returning to Libya to fight. "Now I have a doctorate in the gun."

Misurata rests isolated on a swathe of land jutting into the Mediterranean. Dependent on supplies and reinforcements arriving there by sea, the rebels have attempted to end their precarious isolation and press towards Tripoli.

At the same time, Colonel Qaddafi has invested considerable resources to bottle up and then recapture what is now the second -largest rebel stronghold after Benghazi.

The result has been the most lethal campaign of the civil war. More than 1,000 rebels and an unknown number of government soldiers have died since February 17 and there has been no sign that either side has gained the upper hand.

The Wassatt El Medina unit forms part of the rebels' front line at the nearby town of Dafnia, on the way to Tripoli. There, large farmhouses, tree breaks and sand dunes offer limited cover from the barrage of rocket fire from enemy lines that are often less than a kilometre away.

A month-long stalemate was broken this week when the rebels finally advanced 11km. At least 29 men were lost and more than 100 wounded, but it moved them within striking distance of Zlitan.

The men camp in tents and conditions are harsh. Dust from approaching vehicles draws frequent rocket fire along the bombed-out road.

On Monday, an enemy tank was in sight a few kilometres away, but the fighters relaxed when they heard Nato planes overhead.

"The tanks and big guns will not risk coming into the open now," said commander Hussien Atire as he outlined the day's battle strategy. He used a stick to draw military movements in the sand.

With the exception of a handful of former government soldiers who had defected, most of these men fired a weapon for the first time while facing Colonel Qaddafi's forces.

Limited ammunition and weapons means supplies will be crucial. When fighting broke out after the February 17 uprising, Libya's rebels could not afford to waste supplies or time on military training.

In the early stages, rebels fighting heavily armed troops in the streets of Misurata were often armed only with knives and petrol bombs.

"I had to wait until we killed one of Qaddafi's men so I could take his gun and fight," said Abdul Hamid Mohammed, 23, an engineering student. "I had seen weapons before, but only on television. Mostly in Vietnam War movies."

Mr Mohammed said working out how to use the weapon was easy. Getting used to killing took a little longer.

"The first time was very, very difficult," he said. "It's a very bad feeling to kill another Libyan, but when you see what they did to our people it becomes easier," he said.

Massive weapon stockpiles and Colonel Qaddafi's financial resources have kept his fighters, many of whom are allegedly mercenaries from African nations, fully armed.

"For every rocket we send, they send ten," Osama Mohammed said as he pointed to the exact spot where a Grad surface-to-surface rocket was about to hit on the western front earlier this week.

Some of the rebels' weapons and ammunition have been purchased or donated from outside the country, but an international embargo on weapons entering Libya has kept shipments to a minimum. The majority have been captured from Colonel Qaddafi's men and a collection of unexploded enemy rockets.

From the communications office on Misurata's southern front, Bashir Ali said they often found find ammunition they have no weapon for.

"We invent weapons to fire this ammunition," he said. "We have to send it back somehow."

Al Hekma hospital in Misurata received the remains of three men killed on Wednesday as they attempted to place a new detonator into an unexploded RPG.

An estimated 70 per cent of Misurata's able-bodied men have fought on the front line. Many have been injured more than once and returned to the front line directly from their hospital beds.

"Our problem is not a lack of fighters," Mr Ali said. "What we need is more weapons."

Conditions for the fighters have improved, however. Discipline has replaced the reckless gung-ho advances of the early days. Nato air strikes have destroyed some of the enemy's most lethal weaponry. Casualties have been dropping, but Misurata's main hospital is still reporting a daily average of three dead and 40 injured.

For more on Libya's civil ware click here