Sunday, April 3, 2011

Libya rebels battle Gaddafi forces in oil town.

Warplanes flew over Brega on Sunday as rebels fought troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi for control of the east Libyan oil town, rebel fighters said.

Near the eastern gate of Brega, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 25 km (15 miles), aircraft and the thud of explosions and machinegun fire could be heard.

Black smoke rose further west and hundreds of cars carrying volunteer rebel fighters streamed away from the town. Later, half a dozen rockets struck near the gate.

Rebels waiting there held their ground while the silhouettes of men and trucks could be seen scouting the desert far beyond the road. Four rockets burst from their launchers and zipped across the wasteland toward Brega.

"Those planes that circled last night didn't hit anything," said rebel fighter Osama Abdullah, suggesting the absence of air strikes was the result of NATO taking command of the coalition forces from France, the United States and Britain.

"(French President Nicolas) Sarkozy is great but NATO is not," said Abdullah.

A Western coalition air strike killed 13 rebels late on Friday near Brega's eastern gate. The rebel leadership called the bombing an unfortunate mistake and said air strikes were still needed against Gaddafi's better-armed units.

A friend of Abdullah who gave his name as Youssef said: "We need weapons that can fight against the tanks and Grads (rockets) that Gaddafi has."

Comments from rebel volunteer fighters near the gate marking Brega's eastern limit suggested that better trained anti-Gaddafi army units continue to battle government forces around the town's university 15 km to the west, without any clear outcome.


The fighting in Brega has gone on for four days, with the rebels holding ground after beating a chaotic retreat from near Gaddafi's home town of Sirte more than 300 km to the west.

The rebel leadership has sought to break the stalemate by deploying heavier weapons and a firmer line of command.

They have also sought to keep the less disciplined volunteers, and journalists, several kilometres (miles) east of the front line.

The caravan of lightly-armed volunteer fighters has spent days dashing back and forth along the coast road on Brega's eastern outskirts, scrambling away in their cars and pick-ups as the Gaddafi forces fire rockets toward their positions.

An armored personnel carrier and a steady trickle of vehicles carrying heavy weapons drove back and forth along the road to Brega, past the charred remains of several vehicles.

A few dozen fighters were praying near the eastern gate. Some others were busy trying to climb a disconnected telegraph pole to raise the rebel flag.

The volunteers tend to get on well with the rebel army but a small scuffle broke out near Brega's eastern gate on Sunday as a soldier berated them for their lack of discipline.

"These revolutionaries go in and fire and that's it. They don't have any tactics, these guys. They cause problems," said the soldier, Mohammed Ali.

Former Air Force Major Jalid al-Libie told Reuters in Benghazi that a brigade of professional soldiers had been formed and it would bring order to the rebel army at the frontline.

"We are reorganizing our ranks. We have formed our first brigade. It is entirely formed from ex-military defectors and people who've come back from retirement."

Asked about numbers, he said he could not reveal that but added: "It's quality that matters."

Libie, a former fighter pilot, said he had joined the rebels at the outset of the uprising.

He conceded that the enthusiasm of the rebel volunteer army was not matched by much military prowess.

"Now this brigade will establish authority on the ground," he said. "Before the end of the week you will see a different kind of fighting and that will tip the balance.

(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Angus MacSwan; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton and David Cowell)

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