Rebels rely on hope in the absence of firepower


Offensive action seems a long way off for a force that shows little sign of co-ordination

FOR WEEKS the answer to the question of who is running Libya’s rebel army, or even who is in it, has remained confused.

Anyone spending time on the front line came away wondering how the motley band of predominantly young, untrained volunteers, many of whom were using weapons for the first time, could ever push their revolution across the coastal road to Tripoli. There was little evidence of any co-ordination, although Gen Abdul Fatteh Younis, a close Gadafy ally who sided with the opposition in the early days of the uprising, was referred to as commander of the rebel forces.

This week, one Col Ahmed Omar Bani, resplendent in full dress uniform, stepped forward at a press conference in a Benghazi hotel to declare himself the spokesman of what he described as the “new national army”.

Bani, a Libyan air force officer who defected last month, explained that this brave new force would have to be built from scratch because, even though many other officers had defected to the rebels’ side, Gadafy had long undermined the military in favour of personal militias to limit the possibility of a coup.

“From now there is the idea to prepare a new army with new armaments and new morals,” Bani said.

The embryonic force will be headed by Gen Khalifa Hafter, who led Libyan forces during Gadafy’s border war with neighbouring Chad, as commander in chief. Younis, viewed with suspicion by some within rebel ranks, will act as chief of staff. In an interview with The Irish Timesearlier this week, Younis talked of having between 15,000 to 20,000 fighters.

“With that large number of revolutionaries . . . we can manage to achieve our goals, especially after air strikes help prepare the ground,” he argued.

Bani said training of the ragtag yet determined volunteers would begin without delay. But he admitted he had no idea how long it would take to build a capable force.

Echoing other rebel officials, Bani said the opposition forces urgently need assistance from other countries in the form of arms, especially anti-tank weapons and ammunition. He claimed a number had pledged material aid, but declined to name names.

Bani also repeated the rebels’ long-standing insistence that they would not accept external help in the form of ground forces or even advisers and trainers. “Our honour and culture does not accept foreign troops on our soil,” he said. “The only foreign expert we have is Google Earth.”

The rebels’ much-vaunted goal is to take Tripoli, overthrow Gadafy and establish a democratic Libya. Hopes in the heady early stages of the revolt that this might happen within days or weeks have given way to the realisation that the rebels may now face a long war, even with foreign air strikes bolstering their struggle.

The key battle for Ajdabiya, the last town before the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, is instructive. Little has changed there this week, though the opposition claims that pro-Gadafy units that entered the town and are now surrounded are negotiating a possible retreat or surrender. “Unless the regime forces surrender, the rebels will not take Ajdabiya because the government troops are much better armed,” said a doctor who left the town on Monday.

Sometimes the Libyan rebels give the impression that their only real strategy is hope – hope that more regime figures will defect, hope that other countries will give them arms, and hope that the beleaguered people of Tripoli and other western towns will rise up as they did last month.