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Libyan rebels on front line frustrated by stalemate

Fighters are stuck in Ajdabiya, on the border of eastern and western Libya. They could be there for a while.

April 19, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyan rebels deploy at the western gate of Ajdabiya.
Libyan rebels deploy at the western gate of Ajdabiya. (Marwan Naamani / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Ajdabiya, Libya —  

The back-and-forth battle for control of Libya has become a static war along the major front dividing rebel and government territory.

Insurgents on Tuesday were throwing up berms and defensive barriers at the western edge of Ajdabiya, the ghost city that is the de facto border of "liberated" eastern Libya and the western expanses under control of Moammar Kadafi. Rebel fighters here seem to recognize they have little chance of advancing along the coastal strip absent a new round of NATO airstrikes or an influx of heavy weapons from allies.

"We want to move forward, but we're stuck here for now," said Hamdi Mayyar, a salesman-turned-militant. "We really don't know what's going on."

He was among scores of fighters toting battered Kalashnikov assault rifles at the western gate of the city. Periodic prayer sessions and food deliveries broke the monotony. Cheers erupted when a pickup truck with mounted machine gun or rocket launcher moved toward a forward position.

Down the road, unseen forces loyal to Kadafi were dug in near the oil town of Port Brega. Last week, loyalist troops repulsed a frantic rebel push to take the town. A few days later insurgents were sent scampering when the Libyan leader's men took advantage of a swirling sandstorm, which provided cover from airstrikes, to shell Ajdabiya.

A once-bustling city of more than 100,000, Ajdabiya was largely deserted Tuesday and heavily damaged. A tea shop, the only establishment seemingly open for business, served a clientele of stranded migrant workers from Chad, Egypt and other parts.

The weather was clear, and there was no sign of regime forces — or of NATO warplanes. A persistent complaint here is that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has not done enough since its dramatic attacks last month routed loyalist armored columns poised to take back Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, where life goes on with an odd sense of normality.

"Kadafi keeps saying we are Al Qaeda, but we are not terrorists; we want to liberate our homeland," said Mohammed Fakhry, 26, who was loading rockets into a firing pod scavenged from a Russian-built helicopter gunship and placed atop a pickup. "We are willing to die, but we need weapons, we need air power."

Also Tuesday, Britain announced that it would send military advisors to Benghazi to help the rebel command with communications, logistics and military organization.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said about a dozen experienced officers would be dispatched to bolster a team of diplomats already working with the rebel council. The military advisors would not constitute foreign "boots on the ground," Hague insisted, adding that their mission was "fully within the terms" of the United Nations resolution on protecting Libyan civilians.

"Our officers will not be involved in training or arming the opposition's fighting forces," Hague said. "Nor will they be involved in the planning or execution of the [rebels'] military operations or in the provision of any other form of operational military advice."

At the front, fighters brought in bulldozers to create defensive hillocks and staked out positions several hundred yards on either side of the road in a bid to avoid being outflanked. They could be here for a while, unable to advance against Kadafi's entrenched and better-armed forces, who are themselves constricted by the threat of NATO air power. It seems a classic standoff.

Experts from Paris to Washington debate who is better served, the rebels or Kadafi, if this status quo becomes a quasi-permanent reality and Libya remains divided for the foreseeable future. But among the guardians of Ajdabiya's western gate, frustration mounts as hopes for a glorious and swift victory toppling the "tyrant" clash against the prospect of a protracted struggle with no clear end in sight.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.

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