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West Libya cities and towns brace for fighting

Airstrikes have opened up the area for rebel advances. Authorities show journalists a hospital and other buildings they say were damaged by the multinational coalition.

March 30, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyans loyal to Moammar Kadafi stand inside a residence gutted by what Libyan officials said was an explosion at an army ammunition depot in the town of Mizdah.
Libyans loyal to Moammar Kadafi stand inside a residence gutted by what… (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters )

Reporting from Mizdah, Libya — The multinational coalition executing airstrikes against forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi appears to have paved the way for a new rebel front by bombing positions near a rural stretch along the country's western border.

Libyan authorities took journalists to the city of Mizdah, about 100 miles south of Tripoli, the capital, on Tuesday to view evidence of damage to civilian buildings caused by coalition warplane and missile strikes Sunday and Monday on military targets. Military sites in both Mizdah and Gharyan, another city struck by coalition warplanes this week, lie on the front line against the rebel-controlled towns of Zintan and Nalut to the west.

Mizdah showed the perils of using airstrikes in an attempt to change the balance of military power on the ground. Coalition airstrikes on an ammunition depot apparently resulted in Libyan rockets hitting the town's general hospital, a nearby apartment complex housing foreign medical staff members and a single-family home. Several civilians were injured but there were no deaths, hospital officials said.

Photos from Libya

At the same time, Adel Zintani, a rebel spokesman reached in Zintan, about 90 miles southwest of Tripoli, said that town was being pummeled daily by Kadafi forces firing Grad missiles. Both Mizdah and Gharyan house huge weapons storage facilities that are used to support the offensive against Zintan, Nalut and several other towns along Libya's sparsely populated Western Mountains region, he said.

Kadafi's men were hunkering down and "preparing to reinforce existing positions" near Zintan, U.S. Vice Adm. William E. Gortney told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.

Like the rebel advance on the Kadafi stronghold of Surt to the east, a move by rebel fighters into Mizdah risks igniting long-simmering tribal animosities.

"If they come here the people from Zintan are going to kill us," said Ahmad Ali, 25, a member of the Assayeh tribe, which views those from Zintan with suspicion. "It's because between our grandfathers and their grandfathers, there was a dispute over land."

Rebel forces to the west and along the Tunisian border can count on at least some support within the population of towns like Mizdah, which was also briefly under rebel control early in an uprising against Kadafi that erupted last month and was violently crushed.

Last month, opposition supporters burned down a police station and the offices of Kadafi's "revolutionary committee" and spray-painted "Down with Kadafi!" on the walls. They also attempted to take control of police and military vehicles and plunder arms caches. Witnesses said the rebels were violent and determined.

"If they want to change the system they could have done it peacefully," said Mona Ali, a 31-year-old nurse at the Mizdah hospital. "What are they doing burning down the police station? All the children are afraid of them."

Security forces suppressed the rebellion in this desert town with massive volleys of gunfire that sent dozens of people to the emergency room with bullet wounds to their legs and torsos, hospital staff said.

But even staunch Kadafi supporters concede that Nalut, a Tunisian border town and major smuggling junction, and nearby Zintan remain firmly under the control of rebels, whom they describe as radical Islamists.

"All people are suffering in Nalut because they have started establishing Al Qaeda laws in the city," said Taer Abdul-Rahman, a lawyer in Mizdah who said he attended university in Nalut and maintains strong ties to the city.

Residents of Mizdah said they dread an advance by the rebels in Zintan or another uprising in the city. Officials have distributed fresh weapons to government loyalists, including Bedouin tribes roaming the desert. They have formed informal neighborhood watch committees to protect against infiltrators at night.

"All the problems started with these people," said Abdul-Rahman, who vowed to wield his AK-47 and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher against any rebels that approached the city. "They cannot take control of Mizdah because all the people are with Moammar Kadafi. They will only get our dead bodies."

Zintani, a pharmacist by training, said the opposition in the Western Mountains included doctors, engineers, students, teachers and retirees. They were in contact with the opposition government in the eastern city of Benghazi, he said.

Photos from Libya

"If anyone asking for freedom and their rights is a terrorist, then we are the biggest terrorists in the world," he said in a phone interview. "We won't let anyone from Al Qaeda be here."

daragahi@latimes.com

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