Rebel fighters scavenge for weapons and ammunition at an abandoned Kadafi… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Bin Jawwad, Libya — A sustained counterattack by Libyan government troops Tuesday sent overmatched rebel fighters fleeing eastward for almost 100 miles, erasing much of the weekend gains by opposition forces attempting to overthrow Moammar Kadafi.
Panicked and badly rattled, hundreds of rebels sped away from the front to escape fierce rocket barrages by Kadafi's soldiers and militiamen. Rebel gun trucks raced three abreast and jostled madly for position on a coastal highway choked with retreating fighters and civilians. At one point, rebels surrendered 70 miles of terrain in just four hours.
It was a humiliating rout for a volunteer fighting force that had advanced 150 miles in 24 hours over the weekend behind allied airstrikes that pummeled government troops and armor. Many rebels had spoken confidently of marching on Tripoli, the capital, buoyed by false news reports Monday that their forces had captured Kadafi's hometown of Surt, a garrison city.
But by Tuesday afternoon, those rebels were in headlong retreat from Bin Jawwad, which they had seized only Sunday. Many fled 25 miles east to the oil city of Ras Lanuf. By nightfall, the city and its refinery were under government assault as the rebel retreat spilled farther east.
There was no sign of allied airstrikes, which had cleared the way for the rebels' weekend advances. Some rebels regard allied warplanes as their personal air force. However, the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes attacks against Kadafi's forces that threaten civilians does not extend to close air support for rebel forces.
Rebels have been unable or unwilling to move forward without airstrikes, which have grounded Kadafi's air force and robbed his troops of many of their tanks, armor and rocket batteries.
"Where is Sarkozy? Where is Obama?" asked Hussam Bernwi, 36, an exterminator wielding an assault rifle, referring to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his U.S. counterpart and their warplanes and missiles. Bernwi wore camouflage fatigues that he said were abandoned by government militiamen.
"I'm disappointed," Bernwi said. "We can't win without those planes."
Fleeing rebels were reduced to bickering and recriminations. Some screamed at gun trucks that continued to barrel east past Ras Lanuf, deep into rebel-held eastern Libya.
"Turn around and fight!" one young rebel shouted at a passing gun truck. "If you don't want to fight, give us your guns."
Other rebels fired their weapons toward overcast skies, a gesture of futility that only accentuated the pervasive sense of gloom and defeat among some volunteer fighters.
The swift battlefield reversal underscored the mercurial nature of the war in the east, where neither side seems strong enough to vanquish the other. Nearly a month of fighting has raged back and forth across a 220-mile stretch of coastal wasteland in a nation with a shoreline of nearly 1,100 miles.
The retreat from Bin Jawwad marked the second time in just 23 days that government forces had routed rebels there. The town is on the fault line between eastern and western Libya, with several tribes in the area split between the two sides.
By nightfall Tuesday, some rebel gun trucks had retreated all the way east to Uqaylah, nearly 120 miles from the spot where rebels had advanced to within 50 miles of Surt 24 hours earlier.
Among those fleeing were rebels driving trucks mounted with the opposition's most effective weapons: 106-millimeter artillery, heavy machine guns and recoilless rifles. Comrades firing behind sand dunes shouted at them to turn around, but they ignored them and sped east.
Some fighters acknowledged that they felt helpless against the BM-21 Grad rocket systems that pounded rebel positions throughout the day. There was no sign near Bin Jawwad of Grad batteries that rebels seized from government forces last weekend.
"When the Grads hit, we all ran," said Abdelsalam Ali, 37, a taxi driver armed with an assault rifle. "They're too strong for us."
Asked whether he would stand his ground and fight if the government advance continued, Ali shrugged and replied, "It's not wise to face these guys when they have heavy weapons and we don't. I'm trying to do this in a safe way."
Also fleeing was Mohammed Fatallah, 42, a businessman armed with a submachine gun manufactured in 1949. He said he was too leery of Grad rockets to stand and fight for Bin Jawwad.
"If the planes will hit Kadafi's men, well, then I'll go there and fight," Fatallah said. "If the planes don't attack, we'll get pushed back even more."
Other lightly armed rebels said they retreated because they were told that only heavy machine guns and antiaircraft systems were needed at the front. But those claims proved suspect when rebel gun trucks fled from the front towing those weapons.
Many rebels gave up any pretense, at least for the day, of marching on Surt or on to Tripoli.