NALUT, LIBYA — Graffiti on a wall in the center of Nalut has a message for Moammar Kadafi: "Let us be free."
But the streets of this largely Berber mountain city of western Libya are nearly empty, except for a few passing pickups mounted with guns and loaded with steely eyed fighters.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 26, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Libya: A headline in the June 25 Section A on an article about fighting in Libya's western mountains said "Libyan's western front joins battle." It should have said "Libya's western front joins battle."
Children, mothers and grandparents have fled to Tunisia to escape the batteries of missiles launched from the valley below by military forces loyal to the longtime Libyan strongman.
An ambitious operation last weekend to fight back ended in failure, with 15 rebel fighters dead, dozens injured and not an inch of territory gained.
Though much of the focus on the rebellion has centered on Tripoli and the large rebel-held cities of Benghazi and Misurata, the uprising is also playing out in rugged mountain communities in the west, near the Tunisian border, where Libya's long-oppressed Berber minority sees its own chance to shake off Kadafi's four-decade rule.
The fighters here, who are increasingly in contact with rebels in Benghazi and elsewhere, also view it as an opportunity to help stretch Kadafi's forces: the more troops tied down in the west, the fewer available to control Tripoli or attack other rebel-held areas, primarily in eastern Libya.
Kadafi's forces, meanwhile, see Nalut as strategically important for cutting off supply lines from Tunisia to the rest of the rebel-controlled mountains. As in larger cities, Kadafi's men have launched ferocious attacks on residential areas here, with mixed success.
In smaller cities such as Jadu, 75 miles east of Nalut and with less strategic importance, rebel forces have proved successful. Hundreds of colorfully dressed, laughing children filled the streets several hours after weekly prayers Friday, holding the pre-Kadafi Libyan flag and singing pro-democracy songs in Arabic and Amazigh, the Berber language. Dozens of men gathered at a cafe and chatted over cups of coffee as women crowded around a vendor selling apples and cantaloupes from the back of a truck.
Yet in other parts of this remote stretch of cities high in the Nafusa Mountains, the rebels have overreached and been beaten back, much as they were in parts of eastern Libya before a NATO air campaign began to protect civilians from Kadafi's forces.
The divergent fates of Nalut and Jadu illustrate the opportunities and fragility of the four-month uprising to oust Kadafi. Here, the topography that makes the sparsely populated territory relatively easy to defend also makes it difficult to supply and vulnerable to siege.
Government rocket fire could be seen Friday night over Nalut, where inadequately prepared rebels were defeated last week.
"We asked them to wait," rather than attack, said Abdullah Funas, a former diplomat, who serves on the rebel leadership committee of Jadu, a city of 9,000. "Our commander called them and asked them to wait. This was a big mistake on their part."
Some mountain towns have had it even worse than Nalut, which with 18,000 residents is one of the largest communities near the Tunisian border. Wazin, a border town, is now empty save for a few guards protecting homes from looters. It was the scene of ferocious fighting between Kadafi loyalists and rebel fighters battling for control of the border crossing, the second-most important gateway between Libya and Tunisia. Though the rebels won the fight, their city remains a ghost town.
Kadafi's men have for months been tormenting Nalut, a staging ground for protecting the Tunisian border crossing. They sneak into canyons along the foothills and fire Grad rockets from lowlands to the north. Rebel leaders acknowledge that the fear of NATO airstrikes keeps Kadafi's men from moving even more aggressively toward the mountains.
"They've been hitting Nalut almost every day," said Funas, who defected to the opposition in the Nafusa Mountains after the uprising began. "Kadafi wants no one left in that city."
Kadafi's forces have prevented residents from tending to their fields and have killed off livestock on farms at the foot of the mountains, denying them access to food save for expensive imports from Tunisia. Kadafi has also stopped gasoline supplies and cut off the city's utilities.
"There's no electricity and there's no water," said Mohammad Naluti, 21, a university student who volunteers as a liaison between the city's military and media committees. "Who would want to live here?"
Desperate, inexperienced and overconfident, the city's fighters ignored warnings from the other towns in the western mountains, launching the three-day attack that ended with heavy losses. Things might have been worse if not for NATO warplanes bombing Kadafi's Grad missile positions and weapons storage facilities Tuesday, rebels acknowledged.
The ill-fated operation might have been prompted more by emotion than strategy, one observer said, and it alerted Kadafi loyalists both to tactical vulnerabilities and weakened morale.