Inexperience brings edginess but rebels find purpose in facing hated enemy


Few know how to use the guns, anti-aircraft artillery and launchers they tote so casually

AT A checkpoint and makeshift base next to a mosque on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, scores of rebels wait. They wait for orders – though it is not quite clear who from – they wait for reinforcements, and they wait for comrades coming in the opposite direction, bloodied after fighting in the town of Ben Jawwad on the other side of Ras Lanuf.

The men at the helm of anti-aircraft weapons propped up at the back of pick-up trucks wait for something else – the sound of a low growl overhead that signals an approaching plane. “Tayyara, tayyara [airplane, airplane],” they yell, before firing skyward with a deafening roar.

The rebels say one of their men, who had never used such artillery before, managed to down an aircraft belonging to Col Muammar Gadafy’s forces near Ras Lanuf on Saturday, helping the opposition capture the town. They also claimed to control Ben Jawwad until yesterday when the government militia they thought had fled re-emerged from the shadows.

“Yesterday we were welcomed in Ben Jawwad but today we were attacked with heavy weapons,” says Muhammad Abdul (28), who had just returned from the town.

“The army hid in the town wearing civilian clothes.” As he speaks, ambulances rush past, sirens blaring. A van pulls up and a shaken-looking youth in a torn, bloodied T-shirt emerges, with a hastily bandaged arm.

He tells of several dead and injured in Ben Jawwad. “There is a very big problem there,” says Abu Bakr, another man who has just come from the town.

The atmosphere here, more than 50km (31 miles) from the ever-shifting frontline somewhere near Ben Jawwad, is edgy as scores of gangly youths, most of them not trained to use the anti-aircraft artillery, RPG launchers, and guns they tote so casually, mill around waiting for the next battle.

Some take photographs of each other posing with their weapons or flashing victory signs in front of a large version of the pre-Gadafy Libyan flag now adopted by the opposition. Others burst into chants now and then: “Allahu Akbar” or “Allah, Prophet Muhammad and Libya”. Several sit on blue tarpaulin sorting ammunition. Every so often the air crackles with the sound of gun or artillery fire, some of it down to nerves or simply showing off.

Siraj al-Majbri (30), from Benghazi, says he defected from Gadafy’s security forces after he was ordered to attack anti-regime demonstrators in his hometown.

“They told us ‘kill the dogs, kill the dogs’,” he recalls. “After we said ‘no, we will not fight our own people’, they beat us. That is why we joined the people on the streets.” His family benefited from the regime; he says his father held a high-ranking position at Libya’s state TV channel until he resigned in protest at the brutal crackdown on rallies last month.

“Yes, we worked for Gadafy so we know better than most how his regime has been sucking the blood of the people for too long.”

He acknowledges the rebels appear like a disorganised ragtag band, with little sign of anyone in control. “Nobody can be the boss here but the people are working together on the ground, and the big bosses of the army [who defected to the opposition] are helping us from Benghazi and other places close to here.” al-Majbri is one of the few here who knows how to handle a gun.

Most are like Nasr Ahmed, from the rebel-controlled town of Ajdabiya further east towards Benghazi. “I don’t know how to use any weapon but I wanted to come here to help in whatever way I can,” he says. “Gadafy’s forces may be better equipped, they have planes for example, but we have God on our side.” Arif Assadi, who left his wife and three children in Benghazi to join the fight, nods his head. “We know God is with us and that makes us stronger and more determined to win.”

Another man interjects. “You know Omar al-Mukhtar?” he asks me, referring to Libya’s fabled colonial-era resistance hero who was hanged by the Italians in 1931.

“Just as Omar al-Mukhtar fought for the freedom of the Libyan people then, we are fighting for it now. We are the children of Omar al-Mukhtar.”