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"Do you want your friend alive?" The question was followed by a gunshot and then the line went dead.

As Libyan loyalist forces closed in on Amar el-Huwayti, a rebel fighter, he ran into a mosque, desperately dialling the number of a friend fighting nearby to call for help.

When moments later the friend again took a call from the trapped rebel, it was to hear an unfamiliar voice say those chilling words.

Huwayti's fellow fighters don't know if he was actually shot that day in Bin Jawad, or whether it was an empty threat. But it was enough to remind the rebels that they can expect little mercy if taken by their foes.

If successful in overcoming a lightly armed rebel army to clear the path to opposition-held Benghazi, Muammar Gaddafi would surely wreak a terrible revenge on those who dared to defy his rule. In Benghazi, the opposition's seat of power, rebels have formed an interim government, appointed a military council and are seeking international recognition.

That those gains could be lost seems inconceivable. But the longer the Libyan leader clings to power, the stronger he may become, some fear.

"He [Gaddafi] is never going to come back," says Salah Umran, a fighter from the eastern town of Durna, echoing a conviction shared by many. "But if he does, he'll cause destruction, he'll kill everybody."

Umran has more cause than most to fear the dictator. He was brutally interrogated and jailed by the regime for nearly two years. His only crime, he says, was to pray at a mosque.

In Benghazi, meanwhile, the euphoric atmosphere is shaping into something altogether more menacing. Two days ago, unknown assailants hurled a grenade into a hotel hosting foreign reporters, and revolutionaries suspect pro-Gaddafi elements of blowing up a munitions dump last weekend, killing some 20 people.

Rebels say that Gaddafi sympathisers, of which there are many, are in constant contact with Tripoli by telephone to keep the regime informed of what is going on in the east.

Such reports have spurred a sense of fatalism among the rebels, many of whom view this as a fight to the death. "Even if he recaptures Benghazi, at least we vented our anger," says Fateh Majub, a 44-year-old driver. "I'm coming here to die, but before I die, I want to be sure I kill at least one."

That sentiment is echoed by Awad Tajouri, a 16-year-old boy, who narrowly survived a missile attack last week that killed six of his classmates who had volunteered to fight. Against the tearful entreaties of his mother, he insisted on going to the front, even though one of his brothers is missing in Bin Jawad. "If you advance, you die, if you go back, you die," he says.

"It is better to advance and die."

- Independent