Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kim Sungupta: 'We needed foreign help – but now Libyans must end all this in Tripoli'

'We needed foreign help – but now Libyans must end all this in Tripoli'
By Kim Sengupta in Ajdabiya
The Independent (UNited Kingdom)

The bodies lay strewn, dismembered and burnt. Some of the faces expressed the horrors of the last moments, others lay peaceful, in repose. Around them were the remains of the tanks and artillery of Muammar Gaddafi's army, destroyed in an hour of pulverising and relentless air strikes.

A terrible scene of desolation unfolded on a field edged with pretty wild flowers.

The regime's offensive against the rebels had not survived the first contact with the military might of the West. It remains to be seen whether these were the first shots of the "long war" vowed by the enraged dictator in Tripoli. But for now plans to reconquer land in the east lost to the revolution were in ashes.

In less than 24 hours the loyalist forces have been driven from forward positions in Benghazi to the outskirts of Ajdabiya, the town whose capture was viewed as making it a near certainty that the capital of "Free Libya" would fall. Instead, they were now in chaotic retreat, offering the rebels the unexpected chance to take the war to their enemy's heartland.

Colonel Gaddafi's troops appeared to have taken no action to protect themselves from what was about to befall. Perhaps they were unaware of the ultimatum given by the international community. They were caught; vulnerable; in the open; and what was left afterwards resembled a ghastly montage in miniature of the carnage on the road to Basra when American and British warplanes bombed Iraqi forces fleeing from Kuwait.

In their panic, many of the soldiers had left engines running in their tanks and trucks as they fled across fields. Some raided farmhouses on the way to swap their uniforms for civilian clothes. But others did not make it, their corpses burning with their vehicles or torn apart by spraying shrapnel as they ran to get away.

The rebels, the Shabaab, seemed initially yesterday to be too surprised by the enormity of what had taken place to take advantage of the enemy's rout. Their fighters lingered for long periods, having their photographs taken with the armour, now shredded metal, which had inspired so much trepidation in recent battles. Some fetched their families to join them.

Eventually there was a disorganised push by a handful, in just half a dozen cars, towards where the enemy had fallen back. At Ajdabiya Gate, leading into the town, The Independent witnessed loyalist troops regrouping to carry out an ambush, killing two of their pursuers and capturing three others. But by early evening a convoy of around 50 vehicles was heading towards the new front line with the rebel commanders confident that their demoralised opponents would not put up a fight.

The next stops for the revolutionary forces, maintained Captain Fayyad Bakri, would be Brega, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, towns recently lost to the regime, and then Sirte, the birthplace of Gaddafi and a loyalist stronghold.

"After that we shall be going to Tripoli," he declared. "Although there may already be a revolt there by then. People will rise up against this evil man now they see he cannot get away with terrorising people. We accept we could not have done this without foreign help, especially from the French, and we are very grateful. But... there must be a Libyan end to this."

However, while rebel forces had the upper hand in Benghazi, the regime mounted a new assault on Misrata, 150km east of Tripoli, despite being on the receiving end of coalition air strikes. Tanks and soldiers entered the town centre and snipers on rooftops opened fire. Mohammed Abdelbaset, a rebel official said: "There are so many casualties we simply cannot count them." Boats blockaded the port preventing medicine and food getting through.

US and British warships had launched 110 Tomahawk missiles against air defences around Tripoli and Misrata. The regime claimed 48 people died and 115 were injured, casualties condemned by the Arab League whose support for a no-fly zone has been crucial in underpinning Western military action. In Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi promised a "long, drawn-out war with no limits" warning his Western enemies: "We shall live and you shall die."

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