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Battered Libyan rebels try to keep spirits up

Fighters are all but pushed out of Ras Lanuf, and are regrouping in Port Brega and Benghazi. 'Better to die for freedom,' says a father as he buries his son, who had joined the rebels to help the wounded.

March 11, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — The rebels carried Fathi Ali down a dirt road to his grave.

They fired guns into the air and prayed that God would take him into heaven. Some knelt and pushed away the white shroud for a last look at their comrade's battered face. The fighters, many just a breath beyond boyhood, vowed to return to the front lines before sunset. Ali's father wept.

"My son wanted to go and help the revolution," said Khaled Mohamed Saad. "I told him it was all right to be a martyr. It's the same as if he died or one of my neighbor's sons died. We are all Libyans and we are all suffering. Better to die for freedom."

Ali was killed Thursday in a bombardment by Moammar Kadafi's forces attacking rebels in the port of Ras Lanuf.

Airstrikes and artillery pounded the city again Friday and a fuel tank at a refinery burned as insurgents retreated, further losing their grip on a strategic oil hub they had taken days earlier with bravado and pickups laden with high-caliber weapons.

The rebels, who had controlled two sprawling staging areas next to the town and the oil complex were manning a much smaller checkpoint about 15 miles east. Their main line of defense was 70 miles farther east in Port Brega, where antiaircraft batteries were positioned on both sides of the coastal highway.

"We got attacked by planes and rockets and ships, and we had no way to fight back and stop them," Issam Darebi, 34, a fighter wearing a black leather coat and military fatigues at the Port Brega checkpoint, said of Thursday's retreat. "We need much bigger weapons."

Other fighters vowed to stand their ground if Kadafi's forces take control of Ras Lanuf and launch an assault on Port Brega.

The government's arsenal has outmatched rebel forces causing a dramatic shift in momentum that probably will see the Libyan army push deeper into rebel-controlled territory. That prospect has leaders in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi pressing the international community to establish a no-fly zone to keep Kadafi's warplanes grounded.

"A no-fly zone is critical," said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebels' national council in Benghazi. "It will jam Kadafi's communications, shutdown his air force and be a psychological deterrent for his supporters. We need a no-fly zone to shorten the time of people dying. Kadafi has 3,000 thugs with heavy machinery but that's not enough to rule a country."

As Ali was buried in a graveyard near a cement factory on the edges of this city, four other fighters, with limbs amputated, lay in a nearby hospital. In the main square along the corniche, about 15,000 worshipers cursed Kadafi and spoke of blood and sacrifice at Friday prayers.

"We're running out of time. People are dying," said a man wearing camouflage fatigues and a scarf. "Our rebels are hanging on. There's no turning back anymore. If we stop or surrender, he'll kill us all."

Fathi Ali's body was carried past a row of graves to number 277. The plots behind his had been filled; the open ones in front awaited fresh arrivals from the battlefield. The graves were about 4 feet deep and lined with cinderblock. They had been dug quickly by men with shovels and buckets of cement.

Beggars in wheelchairs watched the ragged cortege pass, winding through the gates and down the dirt road. The rebels lifted Ali's linen-draped body out of a wooden box and scrambled over a dirt mound. Three men jumped into the grave and lowered him in. They pushed back the shroud and gently, as if holding a vase, studied his half-gone face.

Cement slabs sealed the grave shut and men smeared wet mortar with their bare hands over crevices and cracks. Others knelt, pushing rust-colored dirt over the grave until it was filled and a man with a machine gun fired into the air, bullet casings arcing and shining in the sun.

Ali had joined the revolution one week ago. He quit his job as an assistant oil driller and left Benghazi, heading west toward Ras Lanuf. He had no weapon; he wanted to help the rebels with first aid. He was 36, single with no children.

"He lived his whole life under Kadafi. He knew what it was like," said his father. "But when he saw Kadafi's forces and African mercenaries killing women and children, he said he had to go to the front and do whatever he could do."

A man with a pistol fired shots into the air. He was angry and walked in circles. Rebels wearing berets gathered. Old men stood behind them.

"I worked with Ali in the oil fields in the desert. He had a pure heart," said Ellafi Elgetlawi. "He was like the rest of us. If we didn't go there to meet Kadafi's army, they could come here. I saw him in the ambulance. An artillery shell had hit near him. I didn't recognize him and later someone told me, 'That was Fathi Ali.'"

He pulled on his jacket and raised his voice.

"I'm going back to fight today," he said. "I can't leave the others alone."

He walked away as flags from another procession stopped at grave 278.

Ayman Abdulkarim was a waiter in a coffee shop. He joined the rebels a week ago too. He died in the same attack that killed Ali. His white-draped body was also lowered into the ground by men with guns while other men dug new holes and mixed mortar, their shovels scraping after everyone had gone.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Zucchino in Port Brega, Libya, contributed to this report.

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