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As Kadafi's rocket hits, singing Libya rebels scatter

The rocket attack by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi is a response to attempts by rebels to negotiate a withdrawal of government forces that have bombarded the key city of Ajdabiya.

March 25, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • A rebel fighter with a rocket-propelled grenade and assault rifle entertains comrades with a patriotic song at the front lines in Ajdabiya.
A rebel fighter with a rocket-propelled grenade and assault rifle entertains… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Ajdabiya, Libya — Strumming a guitar, a grenade launcher slung over one shoulder and a machine gun over the other, Massoud Bwisir crooned a soulful version of his latest revolutionary song, "My Home Is Strong and Free."

Bwisir was performing in the desert sun at a rebel checkpoint five miles north of the embattled eastern Libyan city of Ajdabiya on Friday. Fellow fighters put down their weapons and joined in the chorus, belting out lyrics of defiance aimed at Moammar Kadafi's regime in Tripoli.

A rocket whistled in and exploded about a hundred yards away, spraying sand dunes with shrapnel. The singing fighters yelped and ran for cover.

Photos: "A kumbaya moment" with Libyan rebels

The rocket attack was a response to attempts by rebels overnight to negotiate a withdrawal of government forces that have bombarded the city of 120,000.

Talks broke off Friday morning, leaving a six-day stalemate stuck firmly in place. The battle for Ajdabiya dragged on as explosions sounded in the hazy distance.

Rebel gun trucks sped south to harass Kadafi's men with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Government forces fired back with salvos from BM-21 Grad rocket batteries and T-72 tanks.

Within the dusty, windblown city, residents unable or unwilling to flee remained pinned down in their homes with electricity, water and cooking gas supplies cut off.

Rebels returning from forays into the city said Kadafi's troops also were running low on fuel, food, water and ammunition. Coalition airstrikes have blown holes in their supply lines from the west, trapping them in Ajdabiya.

French and British military officials said air attacks Friday destroyed armored vehicles and a rocket battery that had been blasting residential neighborhoods.

Ajdabiya is the gateway to the government-dominated west and two strategic oil cities, which Kadafi's troops seized from rebels this month. For Kadafi's forces, it blocks approaches to opposition headquarters in Benghazi, 95 miles north, and the rest of rebel-controlled eastern Libya.

Allied airstrikes that began a week ago reversed the government advance into Benghazi. Before then, Kadafi's men were well supplied from the Kadafi stronghold of Surt, 240 miles west of here.

In Benghazi, the chief opposition spokesman, Abdelhafed Ghoga, said rebel fighters planned to storm Ajdabiya and overrun government forces.

"It's a matter of hours," Ghoga predicted.

But the rebels have been promising to take the city for days, only to scatter in panic every time Kadafi's men unleash tank and rocket bombardments.

At the rebels' southernmost checkpoint on Ajdabiya's outskirts Friday, gunmen lounging in the shade of gun trucks seemed content to let allied airstrikes carve up government forces.

"It will take time with Kadafi. We still need more help from the outside world," said Naser Hagagi, 36, a social work student who said he arrived Monday from Germany to fight in the rebel army.

The fighters hardly seemed motivated to attack after a sweat-stained rebel rushed in from the city to report that his tank had just been hit by government tank fire and abandoned. Moments later, a gun truck bearing a wounded rebel roared in from Ajdabiya. Bellowing in pain from a leg wound, the fighter was loaded into an ambulance, which sped north to Benghazi.

A few miles north, four newly arrived truck-mounted rocket batteries were lined up in the desert out of enemy rocket range. Rebels said they were intended for an impending assault on Ajdabiya.

But the young volunteer fighters were as disorganized and impetuous as ever. They argued over tactics, with some emerging from midday prayers energized and eager to attack. Others counseled patience.

Mustafa Arobaa, 45, an oil company engineer turned rebel fighter, has struggled all week to bring order to the ranks. When he tried to address fellow fighters to outline a plan for an assault on Ajdabiya, some of the young men announced that they were rushing in on their own.

"Don't be so eager to die!" Arobaa shouted at them. He pleaded with the hotheads among the rebels to set up a command post and assign specific missions to gun trucks and rocket-propelled-grenade teams.

"We need a plan, a system. We can't just go driving in and get shot," Arobaa said wearily. "With a proper plan, we can drive them out of Ajdabiya tonight and finish this tragedy, God willing."

That wasn't the plan outlined in Benghazi late Friday by Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman. Asked whether the rebels would simply try to wait out Kadafi's forces as allied airstrikes continue, Gheriani replied, "That would be the logical way to do it."

"They're trapped," he said. "They've been sitting there for a week, low on food and water and fuel."

Not only will the rebels no longer negotiate with Kadafi's fighters in Ajdabiya, spokesman Ghoga said, but they will reject any overtures from the Kadafi regime in Tripoli, the capital.

"No negotiations," Ghoga said. "Kadafi is a liar. He's not serious."

At the Ajdabiya checkpoint, the singing gunman, Bwisir, professed to be untroubled by the government rockets occasionally screaming in and exploding.

He's not a military strategist. He's a sort of Bob Dylan of the eastern front, a plump, 36-year-old car wash owner from Benghazi with two kids and a pregnant wife.

"Don't worry, mother, we know how to fight," goes one lyric. Bwisir is convinced that his music is an inspiration to the so-called army of the revolution.

"Kadafi sends us rockets," Bwisir said with a shrug, "and we send him music."

Photos: "A kumbaya moment" with Libyan rebels

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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