Newly trained, working with Nato, Libya rebels get serious

Adjabiya's western gate is good place to see the new reality seeping into the Libyan conflict as the balance passes from government to the rebels, courtesy of Nato.

A checkpoint sits a few miles outside the town, a simple rusty metal barrier with the great desert stretching away in all directions, punctuated by herds of grazing camels and the burned-out wrecks of tanks struck by Nato bombs. A fierce wind sweeps sand across the highway to gather in furrows until it is stirred up again by convoys of jeeps.

The convoys are a mix of giant lorries holding multiple-barrelled rocket launchers and pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns. They are heading west towards the oil town of Brega, 60 miles distant, and, they hope, onwards on the coastal highway 600 miles to Tripoli.

These are the same pick-up trucks that carried wild young men forwards in the first hectic days of rebellion, only to carry them back in disorganised retreat soon afterwards. But the men aboard now are different.

There are no wild yells or frantic flag-waving from these soldiers wedged with their new uniforms into the cabs; just polite nods and the occasional confident V-for-victory sign.

That confidence has come not from any sudden triumphs, but from the realisation that, with Nato patrolling the skies, there will be no more defeats. And this week may go down as when it all changed: for the first time Nato launched a fully co-ordinated attack with rebel units, binning the UN no-fly zone mandate along the way.

After weeks of preparation and training, British and French special forces units working with the rebels organised the baiting of a trap for Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi's forces massed a few miles to the west. First the rebels launched a feint attack, then they pulled back, luring the Libyan army into a zone where they could be destroyed by Nato aircraft.

The Libyan army will not fall for this ruse again, but Gaddafi's generals will be aware that the rebels have mastered the art of close air support; and if this rebel army, which lacks tanks and armour, is to push its way to Tripoli, it will be over a carpet of bombed tanks and charred corpses from the air strikes.

"We did our job," said Abdu Jawad, the bearded Commander of the Omar Mukhtur Brigade, which took part in the feint assault that drew Gaddafi's forces to their deaths.

"We attacked their positions and then we moved back. I felt sorry that Nato told us to pull back but we understand why they did it."

Thousands of miles away in New York the mission creep of Nato, from simply protecting civilians to destroying the Gaddafi regime, is viewed with mis- giving by China and Russia.

London and Washington argue that with Gaddafi raining shells down on the besieged city of Misrata, they have no choice but to continue and intensify their raids.

And it is working: The rebels of Misrata, lacking even the rocket artillery of their comrades at Ajdabiya, have nevertheless begun to break out from the city perimeter - yesterday they captured the airport.

But nobody is predicting a quick victory. Qatari trainers are now running a boot camp for rebel recruits in Benghazi, while more advanced training in unit co-ordination is provided by British and French special forces camped a few miles away.

"The advisers are great. They have boosted our morale," said Colonel Bani. "They taught us how to think and strategise."

At the western gate Commander Jawad looks up at the distant sound of jets, the planes invisible in the bright blue cloudless sky. He says he is sure that with air support the rebels have enough guns to advance.

[Source: By Chris Stephen in Ajdabiya, Libya, Scotsman.com, 12May11]

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