Libya's uncertain front lines

In the desert to the west of Benghazi, armed but outgunned opposition troops stand ready to guard vital oil facilities.

    Thousands of young men have reportedly signed up and begun training for the uprising’s new army [Al Jazeera]

     Ajdabiya, Libya - On Monday afternoon, Libyan military jets reportedly bombed a weapons depot somewhere near the opposition-held town of Ajdabiya, a little more than 160km south of Benghazi, the stable heart of the uprising in this country.

    At a checkpoint on the outskirts of town, with several plumes of smoke rising in different directions along the flat, desert horizon, agitated rebels scurried around confiscated anti-aircraft guns, brandishing pistols and AK-47 assault rifles.

    One man, his face strained with emotion, yelled that “many” had been killed in the air strike inside Ajdabiya itself. Others sped down the road away from town, saying the planes had hit the depot. Still more pointed to a plume of smoke to the north and claimed al-Zuwatina, a nearby oil field, had been attacked.

    Inside the town, residents said there had been no air strike. Later, rebel officers in Benghazi claimed their anti-aircraft fire had scared off incoming jets. Reporters who visited the Ajdabiya depot described a large crater in the dirt; either the fighter pilots were terrible shots, or they had intended to miss their target.

    The episode illustrated the fluid and sometimes confused state of affairs along the revolt's oil-rich eastern front, where a couple of hundred rebels, who at times seem more prepared for television cameras than combat, stand ready to repel an assault by troops loyal to longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.

    Professor cum revolutionary

    Outside the Sirte Oil Company petrochemical plant at Brega, 80km west of Ajdabiya, 42-year-old Abu Seif stood near a checkpoint in a long, black wool coat, looking pensive.

    In addition to refining and exporting oil, the sprawlingf plant produces industrial chemicals such as ammonia and urea. It powers electrical substations in the area, including Benghazi’s, and is undoubtedly a noted point on Gaddafi supporters’ maps.

    Hospitals in the eastern region are massively under-resourced despite Libya's oil wealth [Al Jazeera]

    In non-revolutionary times, Seif is a professor of electrical engineering at Brega University. Since the revolt began, he has served as a member of the area’s civilian governing committee.

    A parallel defence committee is directed by Ali al-Ahrash, a defected army general, he said.

    Inside the plant, work goes on almost as normal. Near a torn-down poster of Gaddafi, dozens of vehicles queued outside a petrol station on Monday.

    A tanker eased slowly into the port, as pipes blasted steam and burning excess gas sent up a small pillar of flame from the ground.

    Abdulbaset al-Rifai, the director, still oversees affairs inside. Pipes draw a reduced flow of oil from desert fields 100 km away, according to Faisal Manjosh, who has worked in the plant’s control room for 15 years.

    But outside, Seif said only a comparatively small armed opposition force was on hand to defend the plant and surrounding areas. Around 200 men with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers but lacking any armored support were prepared to fight, he said, though he added that many more could be summoned from nearby cities including Benghazi if the fighting became serious.

    Rebel forces controlled the land for another 40 km west of Brega, he said, but beyond that - on the road to Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace - he couldn’t guarantee safety.

    The refinery at Ras Lanuf, perhaps 70km beyond Brega, is reportedly defended by highly trained regime troops, and reporters who attempted to approach it on February 26 said they were stopped and briefly detained at a checkpoint by camouflaged troops backed by six jeeps with mounted anti-aircraft guns.

    At the civilian checkpoint outside the Brega plant, no more than four or five guards armed with AK-47s and knives were present at any one time, giving passing vehicles cursory checks. Inside the plant, at its many gates, none of the guards were armed. In the surrounding desert, observers had been stationed, Seif said.

    At one point, a commotion greeted the arrival of a truck supposedly bearing cash for a bank in Bishr, a town between Brega and Ras Lanuf. A man in camouflage chambered a round in his AK-47 and aimed at the truck.

    Other guards in civilian clothes readied their weapons. A few fired shots into the air. The truck turned around and headed into the plant for further inspection. The guards wanted to be sure the money was bound for the bank and not Gaddafi loyalists, Seif said. There was no way to be sure.

    Where are the profits?

    The oil may still be flowing into the Brega plant, but the profits from the production there still barely trickle into the surrounding communities, which remain infuriated with their treatment at Gaddafi’s hands even as the embattled leader offers concessions in a last-ditch effort to win back their support.

    In Ajdabiya on Monday morning, 34-year-old Salim Sayyid Jidran and his brother Moftah - both dressed in long galabiyyas and bright, celebratory vests - recounted how they and three of their brothers had returned home just a week earlier after spending six years inside the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

    Jidran and his brothers had been arrested by security forces in Ajdabiya in 2004, accused by informers of conspiring to topple Gaddafi, though they said they had simply committed the crime of speaking openly about change.

    The brothers’ release was an effort to win some goodwill from the town; representatives from the government told residents they would let them go in the hopes of quelling the uprising. They also offered the town 25 million Libyan dinars ($20.3 million) to keep quiet, residents said.

    But the public-relations effort had been spurned; three young Ajdabiya residents had been killed and at least 17 injured after protests erupted there two weeks ago, and the town was in no mood to bargain over the lives of its people.

    An opposition flag flew over the main square, where protesters had propped up the wing of a fighter jet that had crashed nearby days earlier, its pilot having ejected after refusing orders to attack Benghazi.

    Like many other towns in east Libya, Ajdabiya bears obvious signs of government neglect, a state of affairs that residents find hard to bear, given that Libya’s possession of the largest proven oil reserves in Africa and a gross domestic product per capita that compares favorably to Turkey and Lebanon.

    Main streets in the town remain unpaved and flooded by water due to poor drainage systems. Rough brush dots dirt lots next to unfinished breezeblock buildings. Residents are eager to point out such flaws to visiting journalists.

    “Gaddafi never gave us the chance to make new life,” said Manjosh, the Brega plant worker. “Now all the people in Libya know who is Gaddafi.”

    Gazing at oil tanks looming just dozens of meters away, 32-year-old Ajdabiya resident Abdelhamid Jazwi was awed. He never dreamed he would set foot inside the refinery at Brega, he said.

    Jazwi is employed by an electric company but has not worked since the 16th, a day after the protests began. He too was unimpressed by the regime’s efforts to placate his town.

    “Maybe after you release everyone from Abu Salim prison, we’ll talk,” he recounted thinking.

    Medical deficiencies

    In the Ajdabiya hospital, Dr Mohamed Abdelkarim, the 36-year-old director of medical services, pointed out a laundry list of deficiencies. The hospital owned one CT scanner to serve a population of 250,000 people spread over 1,000 square kilometers.

    Despite an estimated need of 60 million dinars, the government budgeted them 20 million per year.

    Ali Boushreda, a 24-year-old paramedic, had returned to Ajdabiya two days earlier after spending 10 days assisting injured protesters in Benghazi. Both the Shell Oil Company and Tobruk, a liberated town near the Egyptian border, had donated vehicles for the hospital to use as ambulances, he said.

    The rebellion against Gaddafi's authority appears to be gearing for serious combat [Al Jazeera]

    Three or four severely wounded protesters from the town had been transported to Egypt for treatment.

    Abdelkarim said regime officials had called him on his mobile phone during the uprising to tell him the hospital was not allowed to treat demonstrators, but some remained on Monday.

    Two men in their 20s readily displayed bandaged areas of their stomach where they had been hit by gunfire.

    One said he had been shot by pro-regime thugs on February 21, when the violence from the uprising was ongoing; another said the army had shot him at a checkpoint in Brega just two days earlier.

    At a double-arched gate on the road back to Benghazi from Ajdabiya, rebels at a checkpoint buzzed with activity.

    Young men loaded belts of high-calibre ammunition as a brash man in civilian clothes turned an anti-aircraft gun in circles and occasionally fired loud bursts into the air.

    The atmosphere was more comedic than warlike.

    In Benghazi, thousands of young men had reportedly signed up and begun training for the uprising’s new army. Residents said convoys of men accompanied by army troops had already embarked on a long, arcing journey south in an attempt to reach the vicinity of Tripoli without having to confront Sirte.

    Even as they reportedly consider asking foreign powers for air strikes on Gaddafi strongholds, the rebellion’s civilian and military leaders seem to have begun preparing for serious combat with the regime.

    Based on the apparent readiness of the opposition’s ad-hoc forces, it may be best for them if it never comes to that.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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