Snap analysis: Libya rebels face sterner tasks ahead

By Angus MacSwan

BIN JAWAD, Libya (Reuters) – Libya rebels have enjoyed remarkable success in the past few days of their war against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, but they face sterner tasks ahead which will show if they have reached their limits.

Allied air strikes have been the crucial factor in their advance through more than 300 km (190 miles) of desert, bringing them to within 80 km (50 miles) of the Gaddafi loyalist stronghold of Sirte.

Last Friday, the rebels were still trying to oust Gaddafi’s forces from Ajdabiyah 150 km to the south of their de facto capital Benghazi.

Pulverized by air strikes, on Saturday morning Gaddafi’s troops retreated hastily, leaving behind equipment from smoldering battle tanks, stores of ammunition to field rations. In one day they pulled back more than 250 km and the front line now stands near the town of Bin Jawad.

The rebel cavalcade moves forward kilometer by kilometer exchanging barrages with Gaddafi’s troops but it appears that without air strikes they cannot make a new significant advance.

At Sitra, the rebels poured rocket and missile fire into the town for a few hours on Monday afternoon. Watching from sand dunes a few kilometers away it was hard to see if they were accurately targeting Gaddafi’s forces on the outskirts or the fire was landing in the town itself.

If the West’s avowed mission is to protect civilians in the conflict, that could pose a problem.

That question might become even more important should the rebels reach Sirte. The town is known to be more loyal to Gaddafi and as his birthplace it has benefited from his largesse.

The allies, already in dispute over what the limits of their mission should be, may have difficulty justifying air strikes.

Gaddafi’s troops should also be able to resupply and bring in reinforcements at Sirte.

REBEL MORALE HIGH

The rebel army still seems to be relying more on enthusiasm than expertise. A colorful convoy of battlewagons and civilian cars, it stretches out several miles along the coastal highway with the Mediterranean Sea on one side and an expanse of desert boulders and scrub to the other.

The towns are forlorn collections of squat brown buildings — some houses damaged by war, many in a general state of disrepair. The rebels move forward in fits and starts but their inexperience shows.

On Monday, the vanguard of the cavalcade was hit by a roadside ambush that was answered with a long bout of firing, rockets and machinegun fire raking the desert.

Later in the afternoon the front of the army was outflanked by Gaddafi’s troops coming out of Sitra. The frontline was pulled back several kilometers.

“We have been lucky for three days,” said rebel fighter Mustafa Mehrek, 39, the driver of a battlewagon. “For most of the people it is their first time fighting.”

It is genuinely a people’s army. Rebels spoken to by Reuters at the front included a lawyer, an engineer, a coffee-shop worker, students and the jobless.

They said they had professional officers but it was hard to find any command center and decisions to advance seemed to have been made collectively on the spur of the moment.

“We have officers and we have control, but there are many groups,” said Saad Sati, a rebel fighter, as he watched his comrades blast shots of celebration in the air.

Morale is kept high by sometimes false battle reports passed down the line informally. On Monday morning rebels as far back down the line as Ajdabiyah were celebrating the fall of Sirte.

It was not true.

There is no shortage of food. Pickups run up and down the lines distributing bread, processed cheese, dates, water and tins of tuna fish.

But petrol is becoming a problem as petrol stations within sight of huge, idled oil terminals run dry.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Jon Hemming)

Snap analysis: Libya rebels face sterner tasks ahead