Rebel force fears tough fight ahead

By Kim Sengupta

There were skirmishes on the way and a few panicked retreats but, slowly, the rebel forces were getting towards their goal - Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace, a fiercely loyal stronghold and a key strategic point in moving on the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The scale and nature of resistance from the regime's soldiers indicated how much their firepower had been devastated by Western air strikes.

There was little of the heavy shelling that made revolutionary forces flee in the past. It was replaced by sporadic rockets and small-arms clashes.

The rebel commanders, nonetheless, remain worried after reports that the male population of Sirte had been armed and what remains of the regime's armour and artillery on the eastern front has been deployed to protect the city.

Renewed bombing of the military positions in the city by international coalition warplanes are said to have caused some damage, but the city remains well guarded.

The rebel government hopes Sirte defence may be undermined from within. Negotiations are going on, officials claim, with two clans, the Farjan and the Hamanlah, to persuade them to stay out of the fray and use their influence to secure a handover with as little bloodshed as possible.

According to some reports, the Farjan, the largest "family" in the area, have fallen out with the regime over the allocation of money and weapons to form an anti-rebel tribal federation. They and the Hamanlah are said to have objected to how much had been received by two other clans, the Rasoun and the Olad-Wafi.

A dozen members of the Farjan were executed by a militia supporting Gaddafi after a summary trial, turning the dispute into a blood feud, say rebel officials - a claim which cannot be independently verified.

General Khalifa Heftar, who is in charge of rebel operations, insisted the talks with the clans are progressing well: "They will help us against the Gaddafi men, I am sure," he said.

"The aim is not just to secure Sirte but to avoid unnecessary violence. We also hope that the military still with the government will want to join the revolution. We shall take Sirte, but it has to be a careful operation, and we need to surround the place."

At the outset of the conflict the common belief among many in the protest movement was that Tripoli would fall before Sirte, "because people in Sirte are so blindly loyal to Gaddafi".

But the withdrawal from Ajdabiya by the regime troops after a second round of pounding attacks from the air and their failure to defend the two next towns, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, has led to optimism about taking over Gaddafi's own bastion.

But the extent to which the successes of the rebel fighters, known as "the Shabaab", has been because of outside help was underlined by General Carter Hamm in Washington. The most senior US officer in the operation also warned that without continued aid, gains could easily be reversed.

"The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason this has not happened," he said. The general said there had been only isolated incidents of defection to the rebels.

Rebel fighter Sagar al-Farsi, 24, was shot in the leg, a burst of automatic rifle fire coming from a black saloon car as it sped out of Nawfilya.

Determined, however, he was back on the frontline after an hour, with his right leg bandaged from knee to calf.

"It was not a bad injury, I will not be able to march far, but I can travel in that," he said, pointing to a minibus full of volunteers. "I cannot miss Sirte. I want to go there and ask the people who still supported Gaddafi why they could not see the harm he is doing to our country."

Ten minutes later several rounds of rocket-propelled grenades landed about 50m away. Several vehicles in the convoy turned back, two of them crashing into each other, but most continued to advance.

- Independent

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