The 'grand lions' of Libya

Gaddafi's troops may be better armed, but rebels in Misurata say their morale is higher.

    Misurata's Tripoli Street was once a civilian neighbourhood but is now the front line of the battle
    between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists [GALLO/GETTY]

    Sniper bullets spat and pinged down the street as the rebel forces advanced. Backs to the walls, crouched behind concrete blocks they unleashed a barrage of return fire towards where the Gaddafi gunman hid. 

    The front line, the civilian neighbourhood along Misurata's Tripoli Street, has become the devastated playground of war. Fighters battle amid crumbling houses; their windows shattered, the walls blasted with holes from rocket propelled grenades.

    Garage doors, gates and fences are pockmarked with bullet holes. A minaret lays crumbled on the rooftop of the local mosque. The streets are blasted with the thick black residue of mortar attacks.

    This artery of central Misurata was once a buzzing high street. Now, a sofa hangs from the broken windows of a furniture store, clothes shops are burnt out casings, corner stores are wasted caves of contorted, melted shelves and ash.

    The rooftops where women once hung their washing to dry are now the dens of snipers that support Gaddafi's ground troops. Chickens scratch at the streets where the rebels patrol in Toyota pick-ups with mounted machine guns.

    Unlike their inexperienced counterparts in Benghazi - who are prone to easily prompted retreats, Misurata's rebels are hardened fighters. For more than six weeks they have fended off Gaddafi's advance on three fronts - the port is Misurata's only connection with the outside world.

    Morale versus munitions

    As the thud of mortar rounds shook the adjacent street and the rattle of machine guns came from nearby, the rebel fighters advanced under sniper fire from the surrounding rooftops.

    Commander Tahar Mohammed, a clothes trader in peacetime, now leads the 'Grand Lion' battalion. "We are running an operation to clear out the snipers from this part of Tripoli Street," he says, standing among the burning buildings that were the scene of that morning's battle.

    Earlier the group had recaptured a section of Tripoli Street that was previously under the control of Gaddafi forces. "We pushed them back 500 metres in four hours," Mohammed explains.

    As the battalion nonchalantly lunched in the newly captured area, shells still falling around them, they spoke of that morning's operation.

    The rebels had sprung a multi-pronged attack: Firing heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades they had cornered the snipers in one building.

    "We asked the snipers to surrender: They didn't, so we shot them. We killed eight and captured one," says fighter Sahah Mohammed Khalil.

    Their intention is to clear the area, building by building, street by street. And they are enjoying laudable success. They now control 60km of Tripoli Street. The areas closer into town have also been secured. The streets are punctuated with checkpoints and sand barricades - a form of defence against a possible attack.

    Khalil's head is bandaged with a bloody patch where he took a piece of shrapnel. "The snipers have rocket propelled grenades, rifles and grenades. When one got scared, the sniper threw a hand grenade," he says.

    The Gaddafi troops are better equipped they say. "This is one of their RPG's - family size," says Mohammed.

    Gaddafi has better weapons, but our morale is higher, say the rebels. "Gaddafi has the bravery of a bird, his people don't want to fight," Mohammed adds.

    In a Misurata medical clinic lays one of Gaddafi's fighters. The 19-year-old boy, who does not want his identity revealed, was a student of electrical engineering in Tripoli. When the fighting started and his lessons were cancelled he says he was forced to join Gaddafi's troops.

    "We were kept locked in the camp and trained for two weeks and then they took us to the battalion," he explains.

    Told only that they would be fighting foreign mercenaries, they were brought to Misurata, he recounts. When they came under heavy fire from the rebels, their officer turned and ran. The boy followed and says his own brigade shot him.

    "The instructions were that nobody should go back. I lay on the ground bleeding for one-and-a-half hours," he says.

    Breaking into tears, he adds: "I haven't seen my family in more than a month."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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