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Libya rebels revel in recent victory

A honking, cheering, flag-waving convoy of rebel gunmen in dusty pickup trucks and battered sedans screeches to a halt in Bin Jawwad, a flyspecked hamlet. They had advanced 110 miles in 18 hours.

March 05, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • A Libyan rebel aims a rocket-propelled grenade in the hamlet of Bin Jawwad, Libya.
A Libyan rebel aims a rocket-propelled grenade in the hamlet of Bin Jawwad,… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Bin Jawwad, Libya — The Libyan jet fighter circled once, twice, and then dipped, low and ominous.

"Scatter! Scatter!" a rebel commander screamed.

On a windswept highway here on the new front line in the ever-shifting war in Libya's east, rebel gunmen raced for cover behind boulders the color of sand. Several antiaircraft guns burst to life, sending bright red rounds streaking toward the sky. They exploded in black puffs above the desert Saturday afternoon.

Then the plane was gone, and the frenzied, all-day celebration of the rebel victory over pro-government forces the night before resumed.

Hours before, they had driven fighters loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi from their bases in the strategic oil city of Ras Lanuf. The government forces fled west toward Surt, a Kadafi stronghold, with the rebels in pursuit, their gun barrels smoking.

Flush with victory, the rebels were eager to push farther west after securing a significant military advance in their 18-day rebellion. Two days before, they had routed pro-Kadafi forces who briefly forced them out of another key oil center, Port Brega.

Although their victories could prove fleeting, the rebels' control of the oil complexes at Ras Lanuf and Port Brega means they have a lock on petroleum in the east, which produces 75% of Libya's crude.

A honking, cheering, flag-waving convoy of rebel gunmen in dusty pickup trucks and battered sedans screeched to a halt in Bin Jawwad, a flyspecked hamlet inhabited by hostile tribes 27 miles west of Ras Lanuf. They had advanced 110 miles in 18 hours.

Here they rested, on the fault line between the two warring halves of Libya.

The rebels said they would marshal their forces and decide when or whether to assault Surt, 95 miles away. The city, packed with thousands of heavily armed Kadafi loyalists, blocks their path to the capital, Tripoli, 280 miles farther west.

Abdullah Awjali, one of the few rebels in full military uniform, struggled to control the mad crush of rowdy gunmen. He stood next to a camel crossing road sign, shouting into his cellphone and trying to hear a conversation with a confederate scouting the road a few miles ahead.

"They are four kilometers [21/2 miles] away!" he announced, referring to Kadafi's fighters.

But the celebration only intensified.

"To Tripoli! Game over, Kadafi!" the fighters chanted, and the rattle of their gunfire echoed through the desert.

For the rest of the afternoon, the rebels danced and chanted on the coastal highway as the stiff desert wind whipped their pre-Kadafi-era flags, a symbol of resistance. They mocked Kadafi as they passed beneath a green arch. Upon it were written sayings from the Green Book, Kadafi's collection of philosophy and aphorisms.

At one point, the rebels tore down a Kadafi banner and set upon it. They slapped it with their shoes — a grave insult among Arabs — and then stabbed it to shreds with bayonets. A volley of gunfire ensued.

A fighter with gray flecks in his beard had seen enough.

"Shebab! Shebab!" — boys, boys — the man said over a loudspeaker. "Save your ammunition for the battle. We can celebrate when we take Surt."

But the rebels were bristling with confidence. They described Friday's battle as faster and less costly than the protracted struggle to evict Kadafi's men from Port Brega. The Ras Lanuf fight lasted only from midafternoon to about 9 p.m., they said. Many town residents helped them, they said.

A regional hospital reported five rebels killed and 31 wounded. There was no estimate of government casualties.

"We hit them hard, and they ran away like children," said Omar Massoud, who was hauling a belt-fed machine gun, its ammunition gleaming.

Tribesmen slouching on the roadside in Bin Jawwad said they had seen a long convoy of Kadafi fighters speeding away from Ras Lanuf about 9:30 p.m. Friday. They told the tribesman to lock themselves in their homes.

On Saturday morning, the tribesmen said they didn't want any part of this war between east and west.

One tribesman, who declined to give his name, said Kadafi loyalists had earlier offered weapons to tribes — there are at least five in the village — that leaned toward Tripoli. There was nothing for those who favor the rebels, he said.

"It doesn't matter," said another tribesman. "If anyone comes and tries to harm our homes and families, we'll fight them to the death."

But when the cheering rebel convoy roared into town Saturday afternoon, the tribesmen raised their arms in welcome and gave the victory sign.

The tribesmen looked defeated later, when they realized that the gunslingers weren't merely passing through but stopping in their village. The happy fighters fanned out in the packed sand between the desert and the sea where the flat horizon seems to extend forever in all directions.

They squeezed off a few final bursts from their guns and bedded down for the night, their weapons aimed west toward Surt.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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