Libyan Rebels Take Military Base Near Tripoli
From The Wall Street Journal: online.wsj.com
By CHARLES LEVINSON in Al Maia, Libya, and MARGARET COKER in Abu Dhabi
A weekend surge by Libyan rebels to the capital, Tripoli, gained momentum Sunday as opposition fighters overran a military base belonging to one of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s elite military units. But fierce clashes inside Libya’s largest city underscored the difficulties that the opposition faces to capture the leader’s last stronghold.
Rebel fighters speed towards the frontllne fighting west of Tripoli on Sunday.
The fight for Tripoli is the likely last stand for Col. Gadhafi, who has ruled the oil-rich country for 42 years, and both rebels and residents of the sprawling city, which has remained firmly under the control of his security forces throughout the six months of fighting, fear the battle for the capital will be both bloody and arduous. Tripoli has remained under the leader’s firm control since antigovernment protests that started in February erupted into civil war. While there are deep pockets of defiance against the government, it isn’t clear how much support Col. Gadhafi has inside the capital and how tight his control remains on the elite units that he has trained to defend it at any cost.
Rebel forces gained control Saturday of the key town of Zawiya, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) west of Tripoli, and the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council officially launched a long-awaited operation to take the capital. With rebel units controlling the main highways leading out of Tripoli, the Libyan strongman is effectively cut off from the rest of the world. However, it is far from certain when or whether he might lose control of the capital, where one-third of the country’s residents live.
The rebel advance eastward from Zawiya stalled through much of Sunday due to heavy fighting encountered at defensive positions set up by well-armed pro-government fighters. By late afternoon, however, rebels said North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft bombed the headquarters of the so-called Khamis Brigade, which is commanded by Col. Gadhafi’s son, forcing a retreat of this elite unit back toward Tripoli and allowing the rebels to advance on the position, 17 miles (27 kilometers) outside the capital.
Jubilant rebel commanders who are leading units advancing toward Tripoli say they expect the Khamis headquarters to be the last serious defensive position between them and the city. Hundreds of their fighters and rebel supporters were looting the headquarters, grabbing fresh arms, ammunition and heavy weaponry.
Inside the capital, however, residents cited mixed reports of the security situation, with many saying some neighborhoods were defending themselves from pro-Gadhafi militias, while people in other parts of the city huddled inside, fearing injury from sustained rocket blasts and gunfire.
On Saturday night, a handful of Tripoli’s neighborhoods launched their own insurrection against the regime immediately after the weekend announcement by the rebel leadership. Overnight Saturday into early Sunday morning, bands of residents took to the streets with small arms to attack regime militias, according to residents, sparking a fierce backlash by the roving band of irregular troops who have patrolled the streets for months.
Residents in the Tajoura and Souq al-Jouma’a neighborhoods, both known for their defiance of the regime, reported heavy gunfire and explosions in their districts until midmorning Sunday.
By late Sunday morning, however, fighting had died down and there were conflicting reports about which side had gained the upper hand in those areas.
Yousuf, a resident of Souq al-Jouma’a, said the coastal road leading from the port in the center of Tripoli eastward was empty of vehicles except for the Toyota pickup trucks used by Col. Gadhafi’s security militias. Trucks full of regime gunmen zipped back and forth along the coast road towards the restive suburb of Tajoura, the location of some of the most protracted street protests earlier this spring.
“We couldn’t sleep [Saturday night] for all the missiles and the shooting. No one dares leave the house. All I see on the street are Gadhafi people,” Yousuf said in a telephone interview. He asked that his family name not be published for fear of recrimination by the government.
Inside Tajoura, a sprawling industrial suburb on the eastern side of the capital, rebels and their supporters were organizing themselves for continued battles. Residents said the tight-knit fighting groups had set up a makeshift field hospital to tend to wounded fighters and were attempting to set up defensive perimeters to keep pro-government militias out of their neighborhoods. It was unclear how many opposition fighters had been killed or wounded in the overnight fighting.
In the hours after nightfall Sunday, three residents who live in separate neighborhoods of Tripoli reported that the streets were filling with mostly young men who wanted to support the rebels moving toward the capital. They said that at the end of the Sunday sunset call to prayer that ends the daily Ramadan fast, prayer leaders across the capital started a chant of “Allah Akbar” over the mosque loudspeakers as a sign of support for the uprising. Meanwhile, some residents in the upscale Benashour district, as well as Fashloom and Souq al-Jouma’a flew the rebel flag in their apartment windows. Earlier in the day, opposition supporters had pulled down the portrait of Col. Ghadhafi that used to hang outside the residence of his daughter Aisha and replaced it with a rebel flag.
U.S. officials said the rebel advance was clearly increasing pressure on Col. Gadhafi, but they stopped short of predicting when the rebels would reach Tripoli and when Col. Gadhafi would be toppled or flee. Officials are wary of making concrete predictions publicly because previous intelligence about the Libyan leader’s impending departure proved wrong.
“Anti-Gadhafi forces have had momentum on their side for some time. What we’re seeing is further evidence of their sustained persistence,” a senior Obama administration official said. “If Tripoli eventually falls to the rebels, Gadhafi’s already limited options become even more limited.”
Another U.S. official familiar with the latest intelligence voiced caution about whether recent rebel advances meant the conflict was now at a turning point. “How or when that translates into a tipping point for Gadhafi or what the end-game might look like is hard to determine,” the official said, adding that Col. Gadhafi’s recent public remarks in no way suggest that he is “quite ready to hand over the keys to Tripoli to the TNC.”
Amid the uncertainty across the capital, Col. Gadhafi and his closest aides maintained their position that the regime was secure and that rebel elements were being destroyed. Late Saturday, state television ran what appeared to be a live audio message by Col. Gadhafi in which the leader, who is to mark his 42nd anniversary in power on Sept. 1, that condemned the rebels as traitors and “vermin” who are tearing Libya apart and said they were being chased from city to city—a mirror image of reality.
On Sunday, a government spokesman called on the rebels to initiate cease-fire talks immediately, before they were defeated by the regime.
Late Sunday, Libyan state television aired a fresh speech by Col. Gadhafi. In an audio recording, the Libyan leader claimed he was still in Tripoli and urged Libyans to defend their homeland against the rebels. “I am with you here, I am in Tripoli,” he said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the tape was live or prerecorded.
Rebel commanders pushing the advance from Zawiya east toward Tripoli say that success in capturing the capital will depend on aggressive help from NATO to target the heavy weaponry that Col. Gadhafi’s forces still have arrayed on the outskirts of Tripoli, as well as the rebels’ ability to reinforce and replenish the arms and ammunition of the opposition fighters inside the city.
U.S. officials say recent defections have hit Col. Gadhafi hard. But the shift of the conflict to Tripoli could create its own problems. The officials point to the added difficulty NATO aircraft could face assisting the rebels in such a densely populated area. NATO pilots have struggled at times to differentiate between rebel forces and Gadhafi loyalists, a problem that could be compounded as the battle moves into more urban, built-up areas, where the risk to civilians will be higher.
Inside the capital, the neighborhood opposition fighters have only limited supplies of ammunition and small arms, such as AK-47s, according to residents. Pro-Gadhafi forces carry heavy machine guns and antiaircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks, as well as rocket-propelled grenades, leaving the rebels heavily outgunned.
On the western outskirts of Tripoli, the rebels have massed multiple brigades of fighters mostly made up of Tripoli residents who had fled the city earlier in the year. A core group of these fighters have received military training funded by Qatar. Yet their numbers are likely no match for the numbers thought still to be serving in the elite government units whose sole purpose has been to guard and defend the capital.
Rebel forces moving from Zawiya west toward Tripoli encountered a thick defensive government ring just outside the town, where the headquarters of the elite Khamis Brigade is located, miring the rebels in fierce clashes throughout Sunday. “Everybody is running at it with everything they have got,” said Yousef Mohammed, a logistics coordinator for the rebels’ so-called Tripoli Brigade, the unit tasked with breaking through this position.
The rebel military advance to the outskirts of Tripoli came amid an increased number of sorties and bombings by NATO aircraft.
Over the weekend, British Tornado fighter planes destroyed an intelligence communications facility concealed in a building in southwest Tripoli and hit government-controlled tanks and artillery, said a military spokesman. That followed a busy Friday, in which British air force fighters targeted the Central Organization for Electronic Research in Tripoli, a cover organization for Libyan intelligence activities, including the development of weapons of mass destruction prior to 2003, according to NATO.
It remains unclear what coordination is occurring between the rebel front lines around Tripoli and NATO liaison officials. The communication center set up between the rebel forces in the west of the country and NATO is located in the Western Mountains, dozens of miles away from the front.
Residents inside Tripoli don’t have any secure communications lines to organize or coordinate with rebel commanders. It is unclear how sophisticated the communication lines are between the rebel commanders and their rear base in the Western Mountains.
—Alistair MacDonald in London and Adam Entous in Washington contributed to this article