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Libyan rebels caught in an uneasy lull

Rumors of renewed fighting with Kadafi's troops abound in Ajdabiya. The stalemate born of NATO's airstrike aid continues with no end in sight.

May 10, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A rebel fighter and his son walk through downtown Ajdabiya after prayers. NATOs airstrikes in support of the Libyan opposition have led to a tactical stalemate with forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi.
A rebel fighter and his son walk through downtown Ajdabiya after prayers.…

Reporting from Ajdabiya, Libya — Rumors of renewed fighting circulate in the mostly abandoned city of Ajdabiya in eastern Libya, even without any recent pitched battles between rebels and forces loyal to longtime leader Moammar Kadafi.

Near the city's western edge, rebels have built earthen berms and set up mobile rocket emplacements on both sides of the main road. The tall green arches that marked the western gate — and were a magnet for shells and rockets fired by Kadafi forces — have been dismantled.

"It feels stable now, but a lot of people are afraid the fighting may start again so they're staying away," said Ahmad Atia, 52, who was buying vegetables at a makeshift stand.

Atia was among the steady trickle of residents starting to return to the once-bustling city of more than 100,000.

Control of Ajdabiya, about 100 miles south of the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, shifted several times before rebels opposed to Kadafi's autocratic rule assumed control in March after NATO air attacks against his forces. The front line moved 20 to 30 miles west, on the coastal highway toward the oil refinery town of Port Brega, where Kadafi forces have been digging in.

The rebels say they are using the lull in fighting to train recruits and, at some point, prepare a coordinated offensive for a breakthrough to the west. A visit to Ajdabiya this week, however, revealed little evidence of a pending military push: No command centers, supply depots or large-scale troop movements were visible.

The final checkpoint on the western outskirts of town, which was as far as journalists were allowed, was a low-key affair manned by volunteers wielding Kalashnikov rifles, who used a mattress thrown down on the median to take their rests and eat sandwiches of crushed beans.

"We no longer allow just anybody who wants to fight to go through to the front," said Walid Mohammed, 30, a volunteer stationed at the checkpoint. "The professional army is in charge."

Mohammed was without a walkie-talkie or other means of communicating with commanders 200 yards up the road. As he spoke, two uniformed rebel officers in a pickup truck mounted with a rocket launcher in the back stopped to offer a message.

"Tell NATO we need better arms," said one of the officers, repeating what has been the rebels' mantra for months.

The rebels insist they have professionalized their ranks, replacing much of the scruffy but spirited volunteers who dominated when the uprising began in February with experienced troops issued proper uniforms and standardized weapons. They appear to have abandoned the chaotic advances, followed by hasty retreats, that characterized their early fighting and betrayed a lack of tactical awareness that cost many lives. More attention now appears to be paid to defense and preparation.

"Both sides are apprehensive, watching each other, testing each other," said Dr. Suleiman Refadi, a surgeon at the Ajdabiya hospital who regularly treats the wounded.

The most recent fatalities, he said, were three rebel scouts whose vehicle drifted too close to the regime lines last week on a road outside Port Brega. They were obliterated by a rocket barrage.

Timeline: Libyan rebellion

Track key events in the rebellion in Libya

Airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have neutralized the Kadafi forces' superiority in training and equipment; NATO says two regime tanks were knocked out near Ajdabiya on Sunday. Such strikes also saved Benghazi from being overrun nearly two months ago.

They also have created a tactical stalemate: The rebels have inadequate ground capabilities but can count on some of the planet's most technologically advanced air weapons systems, while Kadafi's men boast superior ground troops but have no air resources.

Whether either side will gain enough of an advantage to advance remains unclear. The opposition's military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, warned recently of a "surprise" in store for Kadafi's troops. But in Ajdabiya, there's no certainty that the uneasy standoff will end any time soon.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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