Libyan rebels seek to bring order to chaotic ranks

Libyan rebels began their Friday with new discipline as they hauled up antitank rockets, imposed rigorous checkpoints and assigned fighters to strategic locations along their front line against Moammar Kadafi’s forces in eastern Libya.

But the effort began to unravel by afternoon as scores of unannounced fighters descended on the battlefield and a high-profile visit by one of the acting heads of the rebel army brought a cluster of gunmen around his vehicle, who then fired their Kalashnikov rifles wildly in the air.

Finally, panic ensued as they came under rocket fire from government forces, and scores of rebels abandoned their positions and once more retreated down the highway in disarray.

The back-and-forth on the battlefield hints at a long fight ahead between Kadafi’s army and the rebels, who began their uprising six weeks ago.

Libya is now divided in all but name between the rebels in the east and Kadafi in the west. Since the weekend, Kadafi’s forces have taken back the coastal refinery cities of Port Brega and Ras Lanuf that they had abandoned after the United States, France and Britain carried out airstrikes to prevent a massacre in the opposition’s de facto capital, Benghazi.


Once Kadafi’s forces were driven from Benghazi, though, the airstrikes tapered off. Kadafi’s fighters have since been able to push back into strategic cities to the west of Benghazi.

The failure of the rebels to hold on to territory has raised questions about their ability to stand up to Kadafi without Western air support. The rebel force also has been hampered by a leadership dispute between two former Kadafi military officers vying for leadership.

Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, a former interior minister and ex-commander of the special forces, has been challenged by another former Kadafi aide, Khalifa Hefter. Hefter is a former Libyan army officer who broke with Kadafi more than 20 years ago and moved to the United States before returning to Libya last month. Eastern Libya’s rebel leaders held closed-door meetings Thursday and Friday to solve the dispute, to no avail.

Younis toured the front outside Port Brega on Friday as rebel forces tried to prove their new resolve and recapture the city, which they had lost the day before. The silver-haired commander, in sunglasses and green fatigues, smiled at the crowd of fighters as he surveyed the terrain in a silver Toyota Four Runner. But his visit unwittingly unleashed a new display of the rebels’ chaotic nature.

Earlier in the day, written commands had circulated across the front, signed by a colonel, that called for fighters to be organized in distinct units. In the morning, checkpoints let only selected vehicles move toward the front. But by the time Younis arrived to tour positions closest to Port Brega, more and more volunteer gunmen in makeshift uniforms were gathering.

Younis’ vehicle was surrounded by men in fatigues who shouted in joy and sprayed rifle fire, oblivious to where the bullets landed. Shortly before Younis’ tour, a volunteer soldier had accidentally shot himself in another reminder of the fighters’ lack of training.

Nevertheless, some spoke confidently of the advances they had made. One volunteer, named Essam Arabi, said special forces were now based in a village 6 miles from Port Brega with tanks, antiaircraft guns and rockets. Hisham Nifa, another volunteer, said the rebels’ campaign was moving at a deliberate pace.

But all talk of a new military posture was shattered when rockets pounded the road where rebel trucks gathered just before 5 pm. As black smoke and dust billowed, fighters bedecked in gleaming bandoliers and ranger hats piled into cars and raced to safety. Some men remained at the front, but most bolted, once more exposing their reluctance to stand and fight.

On a day when U.S. forces announced their bombing campaign was coming to an end, leaving airstrikes to NATO partners, it was difficult to envision the rebels marching west toward Tripoli anytime soon.

Western countries have expressed hope that members of Kadafi’s inner circle will turn on the Libyan leader and force him from power rather than leaving the nation’s fate to a messy push by the rebels.

Parker reported from Zawia el Argobe and Zucchino from Benghazi.