Rebels face tough battle near Surt

After advancing swiftly westward over the weekend, rebel fighters were halted abruptly Monday by stiff resistance from government forces east of the government garrison city of Surt.

Fighters returning from the newly established front lines said forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi attacked rebels with rockets several miles east of "Gate 80," a well-defended military position about 50 miles east of Surt.

Kadafi's soldiers, though stripped of their air cover and much of their armor by allied airstrikes over the last nine days, were putting up a strong fight, rebels said. They said government forces had planted land mines on the approaches to Surt, slowing the rebel advance toward Kadafi's hometown.

Surt, a coastal city of 150,000, is the last major pro-Kadafi bastion between rebel forces and Tripoli, the capital. Well-armed troops and militiamen are expected to mount a vigorous defense of the city to prevent rebels from advancing on Misurata, a western city under siege by government forces trying to put down the uprising.

Gate 80, about five miles from a small community known as Harawa, is part of a defensive line regularly manned by Kadafi militiamen posted to defend Surt from attack from the rebel-held east. Those defenses halted a rapid rebel advance of more than 150 miles in less than 24 hours over the weekend.

"It's a big fight from both sides," said Rabia Abdullah, driving a commandeered oil company bus that had just delivered rebel fighters and ammunition to the front. "I just passed two cars destroyed by rockets."

An inaccurate report overnight by Reuters news service quoting rebels as saying they had taken Surt sent overconfident rebel gunmen racing toward the city. A wild night of celebratory shooting erupted in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital in the east.

Hundreds of volunteers, armed and unarmed, sped west in private cars from Benghazi to join the fight in Surt, 335 miles away. But they were turned back near the front.

An advance unit of rebel fighters, which includes soldiers who have defected from Kadafi's army in the east, ordered everyone without a heavy weapon to pull back, the volunteers said.

"I wanted to be part of the taking of Surt, but they didn't let me pass," said Khaled Saity, 43, who brought his father and two friends from Benghazi in a pickup truck.

The four men, armed with assault rifles, were instructed to go back at least 50 miles and patrol the desert to guard against a government counterattack, they said.

Disappointed, Saity headed back to Benghazi. He drove away still wearing a jaunty red beret and camouflage fatigues he said he'd found abandoned by Kadafi fighters who fled in the face of airstrikes by the U.N.-backed coalition.

Rebels massed late Monday in Bin Jawwad, a trash-strewn desert outpost about 90 miles east of Surt. They had seized the town March 5 but fled in panic the next day amid a surprise government counterattack. Last time, the rebels had spent the day celebrating their victory instead of setting up defensive positions -- a tactical mistake they repeated Monday as they fired guns aimlessly into the air and argued over strategy.

Allied warplanes pounded Surt on Sunday night, prompting some residents to flee toward Tripoli, 225 miles to the west.

It remains to be seen whether allied warplanes, whose precision strikes cleared the way for the rebel advance, will attack Kadafi fighters and their weapons systems defending the city. The United Nations Security Council resolution authorizes alliance attacks in defense of civilians threatened by government forces, but not in support of opposition fighters.

Tribesmen in Bin Jawwad said Kadafi's forces sped through the town late Saturday, fleeing coalition airstrikes in the crossroads city of Ajdabiya. Many drove civilian cars with their headlights off, they said, though some military trucks mounted with rocket launchers also were seen. The tribesmen said they saw no government tanks or armored troop carriers in the panicked government convoy speeding toward Surt.

At least four rebel flatbed trucks hauling T-72 tanks abandoned by Kadafi's forces were seen Monday heading toward Benghazi. Other rebel trucks loaded with seized ammunition rolled west toward the front.

With the damage inflicted by the coalition airstrikes, the fight between government forces and rebels has evened somewhat. But Kadafi's forces in and around Surt were still firing BM-21 Grad rocket systems and exhibit superior military organization and firepower compared with the inexperienced and lightly armed rebels.

Rebels in Bin Jawwad said they now have Grad rocket systems abandoned by government forces. Several of the truck-mounted systems have been seen in rebel hands near the front.

As fighting raged outside Surt, rebels in Bin Jawwad complained about the local tribesmen, accusing them of betraying them during the government counterattack early this month. Bin Jawwad lies midway between western and eastern Libya, with loyalties divided among the several tribes in the area.

One tribesman complained to a group of rebels that his car had been stolen. A rebel cursed him and said he was lucky he had not lost his life.

"You lost a car but I lost my friends because of you," the rebel said. "You people betrayed us last time."

Ibrahim Zedan, 23, a lifelong resident of Bin Jawwad, said some tribesmen allowed government forces to fire on rebels from their homes. But others supported the rebels, he said, and were arrested by Kadafi loyalists during house-to-house searches.

Zedan, pointing to the sky, said whether government troops counterattack again depended on coalition airstrikes.

"As long as the planes are up there, they won't come back," he said.

A few rebels took positions Monday night on either side of the coastal highway. Others milled around the wrecked town, eating meals delivered by rebel trucks. Some rebels looted the few remaining items from shops strewn with shattered glass and garbage.

Other rebels set up a larger rear base 25 miles east in Ras Lanuf, the strategic oil city and port they captured Sunday, more than two weeks after government forces drove them from the city with airstrikes and tank and rocket barrages.

Hani Borziza, 27, an industrial engineer from Benghazi fighting with the rebels, stood in the twilight among Bin Jawwad's flattened storefronts and made plans to depart to Ras Lanuf for the night. He and his small band weren't comfortable sleeping in the tribesmen's midst, he said.

"We don't trust them," Borziza said. "Tomorrow, we leave this place and fight our way into Surt, inshallah."

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

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