First Published: 2011-03-23


Libyan fighters: rebels without an officer


Officers and military personnel who defected to Libyan opposition no longer seen with rebels.


Middle East Online

By Sara Hussein - OUTSIDE AJDABIYA, Libya

'There's no one in charge'

Kamal Mohamed stands with rebel fighters atop a sand dune, trying to spot Libyan government forces in the distance. His toes curl over his flip-flops into the sand, he has no weapons.

Nowhere to be seen are the military officers who defected to the rebel side, or the heavy military materiel captured from government forces as they withdrew from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi earlier in the week.

As Mohamed peers south, towards the outskirts of the key town of Ajdabiya, where forces loyal to Moamer Gathafi are arrayed, a small group of rebel fighters set out into the desert, planning an "ambush" of government troops.

Their civilian clothes are starkly visible in the bright sun, dark against the hot desert sand. Some hold Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, others nothing more than a knife.

Within minutes they are spotted and tank fire begins to land all around, whizzing through the air and thudding down, sending up a spray of sand.

Mohamed and others dash down the sand dune, tripping, landing on each other. He loses a flip-flop in the desperate retreat, scooping it into one hand as he tries to escape the incoming fire.

He smiles apologetically when asked about the wisdom of launching an "ambush" in the middle of the day, with such a lightly-armed force.

"We don't know what we're doing," he admits. "They don't know about military strategy, they are just trying to help."

Mohamed, a 31-year-old plumber, is in even worse a position than many of the young men gathered on the so-called front -- he lacks any sort of weapon.

"I'm waiting for someone to be killed, then I'll take whatever he has and try to use it."

Among the rag-tag group of rebels gathering each day outside Ajdabiya, officers and military personnel who defected to the opposition are noticeable by the absence.

"You can see, it's only kids, and everyone is running everywhere he wants. It's not really organised," says 54-year-old Jamal Zelitny, an oil engineer carrying a Kalashnikov he says he has yet to fire.

"They need someone to organise them. The kids just take things into their own hands before taking advice from the people who are in charge."

Also noticeably absent from the frontline rebel position is any of the heavy military materiel that the opposition forces have captured in recent weeks, including tanks and armoured vehicles.

Instead, when Gathafi forces open fire with tanks and heavy artillery, the young men flee in pick-up trucks and ordinary cars. In one retreat, at least five are seriously wounded. Two appear to be dead.

Khaled al-Sayeh, the outgoing spokesman for the rebel's military council, says the opposition forces are trying to "minimise casualties" to their side, but that the young rebels are difficult to control.

They are there "against the better judgement of a lot of people," he said.

"They are mostly from the area of Ajdabiya and are very anxious to get to their loved ones and the control over them has been quite difficult."

But on the frontline, Mohamed says he is eager for leadership and wants to know why military officers who have defected to the opposition are nowhere to be seen.

"We're angry, we don't understand. We don't have any communications with them," he said, after a second mad dash away from a volley of tank fire.

"We want commanders, we want advice, we don't know what we're doing. There's no one responsible here, there's no one in charge."

Among some rebel fighters, Zelitny included, there is faith that opposition military forces are carrying out their own "secret operations."

But incoming military council spokesman, Air Force colonel Ahmed Bani, denies that the professional military opposition are acting independently.

"We are absolutely not working separately," he said. "We are preparing ourselves now for the big battle, in terms of weapons, in terms of strategy," he said, declining to give any specifics on preparations or attack plans.

He also refuses to comment on the location of captured heavy military materiel, insisting only that it will be used when appropriate.

But Bani admits that there is no communication with the young men heading to the front each day, where enthusiasm for the fight remains high despite the impossible odds.

"It's difficult," Zelitny says. "But I'll keep coming here until Gathafi's gone."


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