[Photo by Evan Hill/Al Jazeera]
Libyan rebels are moving westward with surprising speed and meeting little resistance, raising questions about the training and dedication – perhaps even the very presence – of troops loyal to longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
It was long understood here in Benghazi, the rebellion’s capital, that loyalist military units had entrenched themselves around Ras Lanuf, the country’s largest oil refinery, around half an hour west of the rebel-held town of Brega.
But on Friday night, Gaddafi troops withdrew from Ras Lanuf under pressure from advancing rebels. By Saturday afternoon, there were reports of fighting dozens of kilometers farther west, and opposition fighters spoke of attacking Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace and another reputed site of heavy defences.
How the rebels took Ras Lanuf – whether Gaddafi’s troops retreated or made a tactical withdrawal, and how many there were in the first place – remains unclear.
Ruairidh Villar, a freelance journalist who rode with rebels during the initial attack on Friday afternoon, said the fighters he was with seemed nearly completely unprepared for combat.
Villar said that as their truck approached Ras Lanuf, they came under machine gun and mortar fire. The driver halted in a panic, and the man operating the mounted machine gun began to cry. Another man jumped out and attempted to fire his AK-47 assault rifle, but it jammed. Villar and other journalists abandoned the car and sprinted back through the desert as mortars fired by Gaddafi troops landed around them.
A van carrying other rebel troops had been shot and immobilised on the road. One fighter fired a rocket-propelled grenade without aiming.
There was “zero organisation,” Villar said. One of the men in the car with him told him before they arrived at the front that he had never fired a weapon before the uprising.
The town around the refinery is mostly opposed to Gaddafi, Villar said, and the armed resistance in the area was co-ordinated mostly through familial ties.
“Any man with a car and an AK that had been looted from one of the government stories headed straight to Ras Lanuf,” he said. “Everyone was talking by cell phone. One family talks to the next and says, ‘Today, we’re going to Ras Lanuf.’”
Villar left after nightfall but could hear the fighting continue, and by morning Gaddafi’s forces had left. Rebels said around 20 of their number had died.
On Saturday, trucks with mounted machine guns and anti-aircraft batteries assembled at a petrol station around 10km beyond Ras Lanuf, their commanders waiting for orders.
Searching for consenus
Many flew the tri-color flag of the rebellion, but the troops looked untrained. There was no consensus about whether the men would move on Sirte.
Back at an occupied military checkpoint near the refinery, rebels attempted to institute some kind of order. They stopped cars coming from the west to interrogate their occupants. One car held a family trying to escape, the next had a plasma television in a cardboard box strapped to the back.
Fighters attempted to halt the car. One man opened the passenger door. The driver, perhaps sensing that he was in trouble, chose to drive away. Two men with AK-47s cocked them and prepared to fire before a man ran up telling them to stop. One appeared to hold fire only because he couldn’t get his weapon to work.
The next  car wasn’t as lucky. It was packed with blankets, gloves, machine lubricant and was towing a new Toyota Hilux truck carrying two other men. Troops at the checkpoint angrily dragged all three men out and chopped the rope towing the Hilux with an axe. They scattered the contents of the lead car across the windswept desert highway, accusing the driver of trying to escape with looted goods.
As they screamed at him, they distributed the confiscated gloves to journalists and among themselves. A Libyan fighter jet could be heard circling high above, and a minute later the sound of explosion from a military base down the road reached the checkpoint.
Farther east, at a rebel assembly point near the small town of Brega, next to another oil refinery, better-trained rebels waited.
They bore special medallions some indicated that they were part of a paratroopers unit. Several men referred to themselves as “special forces” and said they had come from the Benghazi commando unit that had once been under the control of Abdelfattah Younis and had defected to the protesters side, playing a key role in the fall of the military garrison there.
Many wore full army kit, including modern ballistic helmets, unlike their comrades closer to the front. They lounged and slept in Land Cruisers and jeeps, some spray painted with what appeared to be an official paratrooper emblem and the word “special forces”.
Asked whether they would march on Sirte, they responded that they were awaiting orders.
Libyan rebels clearly feel they have the momentum now, despite a furious counterattack from loyal Gaddafi military forces in the country’s west.
An advance on Sirte appears to be the next move, and could come as early as Sunday or Monday.
What the troops will meet there is anyone’s guess.