The rebel march to Tripoli
By Bob Strong
The Libyan rebel march to Tripoli – from the mountains to the coast
In late July we pulled up to a Libyan rebel checkpoint outside the mountain town of Nalut and I got my first look at the fighting force. One rebel had his helmet on backwards, a few of them were armed with only knives, and random gunfire filled the air as men test fired their new weapons. It felt like the rebels couldn’t defeat a boy scout troop, much less Gaddafi’s well equipped army. As usual, I was dead wrong.
The rebels advance from the west began in the small towns at the base of the Nafusa Mountains in late July. The day we arrived, July 28, rebels had pushed Gaddafi forces out of a series of villages and set their sights on Tiji, a strategic garrison town on a main road leading to Tripoli.
With no electricity in the nearby towns, the Reuters team of reporter Michael Georgy, myself and a driver based ourselves in a hotel across the border in Tunisia. This meant getting up at 6am every day, crossing the Libyan border, and driving 3 hours to the front lines. We would usually get back to the hotel around 9 or 10 at night, eat and sleep.
For reasons unknown, the rebel push on Tiji stalled, so we decided to head east, to the mountain town of Zintan. We rented a house there, about an hour drive to the front lines. The house wasn’t exactly deluxe, but it had the basics and cut our drive time considerably. Most of the shops were still closed and food supplies were limited, so we brought in boxes of pasta, canned tuna and tomato paste and the driver would cook dinner at night.
Our first trip to the front brought us to a gravel pit on a ridge overlooking the village of Bir al-Ghanam. It was a Gaddafi-held town 3 or 4 kms (2-3 miles) away and his troops seemed to be well entrenched. As we looked at the tired group of rebels camped in the dirt, and the town off in the distance, I thought to myself, ‘if they try to advance they’ll be cut down like dogs.’ One day later, the rebels took the town.
When we drove through Bir al-Ghanam it was obvious that the rebels had received a bit of help in their advance. Craters next to burnt-out tanks and destroyed buildings pointed to NATO airstrikes, clearing the way for the rebels to sweep through the town.
After Bir al-Ghanam, the rebel advance became a sprint. They were moving forward 10 – 15 kms (6-10 miles) a day, facing little or no resistance from Gaddafi forces. As the rebels approached the coastal town of Zawiyah it became harder and harder for journalists to get near the front line. We were stopped at checkpoints and told we needed papers from the military council in Zintan. when we went to the council, nobody was there. Finally the restrictions eased and we were allowed to drive to the southern edge of Zawiyah.
It took the rebels almost a week to get full control of Zawiyah. One of their first targets was the large oil refinery on the coast, which fell in one day. It took four more days to clear the main square and main hospital. All the while Gaddafi forces were raining grad missiles down on the town from their positions several kms to the east, inflicting a heavy toll on rebel fighters and civilians alike.
On August 21, the rebels began their final push to the east. Tripoli was 50 kms (30 miles) away and we joined a convoy of 300-400 fighters as they advanced through a series of coastal towns. There was sporadic fighting along the route, with sniper rounds zipping over our heads at one point. The situation was chaotic, as the rebels barreled straight ahead down the main highway, only to halt in places and direct fire into forests or buildings on either side of the road.
We stopped to file our stories and at 6pm rejoined the line of cars heading towards Tripoli. What had earlier been a convoy of gun trucks had turned into a party of liberation. Civilians lined the highway waving flags and embracing rebel fighers. Rebels danced in the road and men rushed up to our van offering us cold water and cakes.
The next day we reached Tripoli. There had been reports overnight that Green Square had been taken and we were anxious to get there to report on celebrations. This turned out to be a bit premature as we soon found out. We moved from checkpoint to checkpoint to assess the situation ahead. The western part of the city seemed secure, but most of the rebels expressed concern about proceeding too far towards the center of town. We stopped at a military school which rebels had just seized. It was a good stopping point, secure and well defended.
After about an hour at the school, the rebels began to take incoming fire from a group of high-rise building about a kilomter (mile) away. It was impossible to tell exactly where the shooting was coming from, but the rebels answered with a hefty barrage of rifle and cannon fire.
A short time later, a Gaddafi anti-aircraft gun opened fire on the front gate of the compound. The initial volley left two men dead and the rebels responded with a deafening barrage of assault rifles, rockets, and other heavy weapons. When the shooting stopped, the Reuters van which had been parked nearby had several bullet holes and a flat tire.
We changed tires and headed back out of the city.
The incident highlighted the very tenuous hold the rebels have on Tripoli. There are pockets which are relatively secure due to the presence of local rebels, but there remain large areas which are under no one’s control. It took the rebels almost one week to clear Zawiyah which makes me think the battle for Tripoli could go on for quite a while.
Of course, I have been wrong before.