A sustained counterattack by Libyan government troops Tuesday sent overmatched rebel fighters fleeing eastward for almost 100 miles, erasing much of the weekend gains by opposition forces attempting to overthrow Moammar Kadafi.
Panicked and badly rattled, hundreds of rebels sped away from the front to escape fierce rocket barrages by Kadafi’s soldiers and militiamen. Rebel gun trucks raced three abreast and jostled madly for position on a coastal highway choked with retreating fighters and civilians. At one point, rebels surrendered 70 miles of terrain in just four hours.
It was a humiliating rout for a volunteer fighting force that had advanced 150 miles in 24 hours over the weekend behind allied airstrikes that pummeled government troops and armor. Many rebels had spoken confidently of marching on Tripoli, the capital, buoyed by false news reports Monday that their forces had captured Kadafi’s hometown of Surt, a garrison city.
But by Tuesday afternoon, those rebels were in headlong retreat from Bin Jawwad, which they had seized only Sunday. Many fled 25 miles east to the oil city of Ras Lanuf. By nightfall, the city and its refinery were under government assault as the rebel retreat spilled farther east.
There was no sign of allied airstrikes, which had cleared the way for the rebels’ weekend advances. Some rebels regard allied warplanes as their personal air force. However, the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes attacks against Kadafi’s forces that threaten civilians does not extend to close air support for rebel forces.
Rebels have been unable or unwilling to move forward without airstrikes, which have grounded Kadafi’s air force and robbed his troops of many of their tanks, armor and rocket batteries.
“Where is Sarkozy? Where is Obama?” asked Hussam Bernwi, 36, an exterminator wielding an assault rifle, referring to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his U.S. counterpart and their warplanes and missiles. Bernwi wore camouflage fatigues that he said were abandoned by government militiamen.
“I’m disappointed,” Bernwi said. “We can’t win without those planes.”
Fleeing rebels were reduced to bickering and recriminations. Some screamed at gun trucks that continued to barrel east past Ras Lanuf, deep into rebel-held eastern Libya.
“Turn around and fight!” one young rebel shouted at a passing gun truck. “If you don’t want to fight, give us your guns.”
Other rebels fired their weapons toward overcast skies, a gesture of futility that only accentuated the pervasive sense of gloom and defeat among some volunteer fighters.
The swift battlefield reversal underscored the mercurial nature of the war in the east, where neither side seems strong enough to vanquish the other. Nearly a month of fighting has raged back and forth across a 220-mile stretch of coastal wasteland in a nation with a shoreline of nearly 1,100 miles.
The retreat from Bin Jawwad marked the second time in just 23 days that government forces had routed rebels there. The town is on the fault line between eastern and western Libya, with several tribes in the area split between the two sides.
By nightfall Tuesday, some rebel gun trucks had retreated all the way east to Uqaylah, nearly 120 miles from the spot where rebels had advanced to within 50 miles of Surt 24 hours earlier.
Among those fleeing were rebels driving trucks mounted with the opposition’s most effective weapons: 106-millimeter artillery, heavy machine guns and recoilless rifles. Comrades firing behind sand dunes shouted at them to turn around, but they ignored them and sped east.
Some fighters acknowledged that they felt helpless against the BM-21 Grad rocket systems that pounded rebel positions throughout the day. There was no sign near Bin Jawwad of Grad batteries that rebels seized from government forces last weekend.
“When the Grads hit, we all ran,” said Abdelsalam Ali, 37, a taxi driver armed with an assault rifle. “They’re too strong for us.”
Asked whether he would stand his ground and fight if the government advance continued, Ali shrugged and replied, “It’s not wise to face these guys when they have heavy weapons and we don’t. I’m trying to do this in a safe way.”
Also fleeing was Mohammed Fatallah, 42, a businessman armed with a submachine gun manufactured in 1949. He said he was too leery of Grad rockets to stand and fight for Bin Jawwad.
“If the planes will hit Kadafi’s men, well, then I’ll go there and fight,” Fatallah said. “If the planes don’t attack, we’ll get pushed back even more.”
Other lightly armed rebels said they retreated because they were told that only heavy machine guns and antiaircraft systems were needed at the front. But those claims proved suspect when rebel gun trucks fled from the front towing those weapons.
Many rebels gave up any pretense, at least for the day, of marching on Surt or on to Tripoli.
Kadafi’s forces have built well-defended fortifications about 50 miles east of Surt, which has been attacked by the Western-led alliance. But even after airstrikes routed Kadafi’s men from eastern cities, government troops are still better armed and better led than the rebels.
The defense of Surt is important to Kadafi because it is the last major pro-government redoubt between the front and Tripoli, 275 miles west. The city is dominated by well-armed members of Kadafi’s tribe.
More than 100 miles east of Surt, gas shortages hobbled some rebel forces. Many of their vehicles carry extra containers of gasoline. But some rebels, joined by civilians, crowded into gas stations closed for lack of electricity. Using rope, they lowered empty water bottles weighted with stones into underground storage tanks to scoop up gasoline.
Later, rebels set fire to an abandoned armored troop carrier and a cement truck as they retreated, apparently to keep them out of government hands.
The day began with a fierce government assault early Tuesday, the second in two days. Rebels at first retreated to new lines a few miles east of a desert crossroads. There, they watched government rockets crash down two miles away, sending up plumes of dirty brown smoke.
The dull thump of artillery and heavy machine-gun fire sounded in and around Bin Jawwad at midday as rebels fought desperately to hold positions there.
Black smoke rose over the grimy coastal town as volleys of rocket and artillery fire echoed across the desert. Ambulances with blaring sirens sped west, their paramedics frantically treating wounded fighters.
At 2:30 p.m., a furious government fusillade stirred panic among rebel volunteers and defecting army regulars fighting alongside them. About 200 fighters suddenly abandoned their positions east of Bin Jawwad in a mad dash to safety.
Two larger, more chaotic retreats erupted an hour later as hundreds of rebels fled 25 more miles eastward. Some fired their weapons into the air at random. They were cursed by other fleeing fighters for wasting precious ammunition.
A few fighters shouted “God is great!” over their shoulders with little conviction as they abandoned the fight.
Those rebels earlier had boldly proclaimed their intent to not only hold their ground but also mount an assault on Surt. Bernwi, the exterminator-turned-fighter, vowed that he would march to Tripoli “to exterminate the biggest rat: Kadafi.”
Just two hours later, a stiff desert wind blew in the faces of terrified fighters speeding east, and Bin Jawwad was abandoned to Kadafi’s men.
The government counterattack began overnight with rocket barrages that scattered poorly organized rebels west of Bin Jawwad. By early Tuesday, dozens of rebels had sped east into Bin Jawwad, fleeing gunfire and explosions.
Furious arguments broke out over the proper way to hold off the government assault. With no formal leadership and no coordinated tactics, the rebels are not a unified fighting force but a collection of enthusiastic but untrained men with guns.
Some fighters set up truck-mounted 106-millimeter artillery tubes atop sand dunes and fired at advancing government forces. Others turned their gun trucks around and drove cautiously toward the fight, only to suddenly turn and flee again at the sound of enemy fire.
Still other fighters crouched behind dunes and embankments along the Mediterranean coast, armed only with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Some squinted helplessly through binoculars at Grad rockets exploding along the highway a mile west.
Rebels said they were lured by Kadafi gunmen into an ambush late Monday about 50 miles east of Surt. Bernwi and other gunmen said a group of government militiamen raised a white flag to draw the rebels close and then opened fire with heavy machine guns.
As the rebels retreated toward Bin Jawwad, they passed several groups of fighters lounging on sand dunes and feasting on meals provided by rebel supporters.
The men were implored to stand and fight, retreating rebels said. But these fighters also turned their gun trucks around and sped east toward the rapidly collapsing rebel lines.