by Michael Gunn, Middle-East Reporter
We heard it ten minutes out of Ras Lanuf, a horrific pounding that churned towards us through the haze then a gathering roar like a caged beast.
It kept up for almost a half-hour as we sped east, trading information for fresh rumour at improvised checkpoints run by nervy kaffiya-clad, rifle-totting rebels. Some hundred kilometres further on we pulled into a roadside cafe and saw the images from Al-Jazeera: a distant shot of the cleared crossroads, a thick plume of dark smoke spiralling upwards from one of Ras Lanuf’s major oil refineries. After a morning of circling jets and distant explosions Gaddafi’s air force had finally hit home.
For several hours we’d stood amongst rebel forces on the junction that marks the entrance to Ras Lanuf, a non-descript dormitory town whose key coastal position and oil capacity have made it the frontline in Libya’s civil war. Several hundred strong, these rebels – mostly young and almost entirely untrained – had unwisely grouped themselves and a hearty amount of their boxed ammo and explosives on a single square, making for a tempting and potentially catastrophic target.
They’d come from the cities of the east – from Tobruk, from al-Bayda, and overwhelmingly from Benghazi – and now these disparate volunteers, some in khakis and camouflage, some in jeans and jackets, strolled between a half-dozen Dushaker anti-aircraft positions, carrying loosely-slung AK-47s, snacking on bread and biscuits. There was a handful of ex-army officers among them but no apparent central organisation. Hyped up on bravado and hatred of the Gaddafi regime, discipline was non-existent. “God is in command,” explained one middle-aged rebel. “Gaddafi is against God, so with His help we will win.”
Some rebels dozed in the sun, others crouched in the shade and joked with friends. Every few minutes someone would unleash a burst in the air from their Kalashnikov or an anti-aircraft gunner would send up a barrage at a non-existent threat. A teenager standing a few metres away fumbled a grenade and flinched when it gave a shallow bounce on the tarmac. Another, Kalashnikov bridged on his shoulder, nervously flicked the safety-catch on and off as his finger rested on the trigger, unwittingly pointing the barrel at a group of journalists.
This junction was where the highway to all intents ended: beyond hastily thrown-up iron guard-rails was no-man’s land, a 20km stretch being fiercely contested with Gaddafi loyalists. We heard reports of missile attacks, barrages of BM12 rockets launched from trucks, scattering forward rebel positions. We crept a little beyond the barrier into the ominous silence before one rebel warned us of snipers and we beat a hasty retreat.
The worst threat came from the air. Twice a low drone built in the distance and a cry went up – ‘Tiarra! Tiarra!’ – plane, plane. A bomber circled the clearing skies as the anti-aircraft weaponry lit up and everyone else ran for cover, leaping to the ground and hugging it close, the chant of ‘Allahu akbar’ becoming a collective prayer for safety. The second time we heard a high whistle and a dense thud on the southern edge of the desert.
Ras Lanuf was taken by rebel forces last Saturday and had been hit from the air before. Now it was a ghost-town, its maze of brutally functional housing blocks abandoned by families who’d fled east. In the backstreets we found a two-storey home ripped open like a dollshouse by an air-raid that had left a three-metre crater in the garden. Nearby an unexploded bomb sat on the pavement, a small group of rebels trying to dissect it with spanners and reuse its explosives.
The water supplies had been hit the day before, closing the hospital, but the lightly injured were still being treated at a medical centre deep inside the town, a congregation point for journalists. A list posted on a wall named 59 missing fighters. One rebel arrived carrying military fatigues shredded by what looked like machine-gun fire.
Morale – previously the rebels main advantage – seems to be faltering as their push westward stalls. “They thought they’d be over-run last night,” one Arabic-speaking correspondent who’d embedded with them told us. Enquiries about the rebel command structure got confused replies. God and faith were all they needed, said some. Others talked of having elected leaders of battallions. Several times at rebel checkpoints on the road back east we saw arguments break out as fighters eager to join the battle were being ordered – although we couldn’t tell by whom – to hold position.
As news of the air strikes spread, there was a concerted push westwards by dozens of 4×4 trucks stacked with machine gun emplacements, RPG launchers and recoiless rifles. The rebels seemed to be giving it everything they had. But when pro-Gaddafi forces have the upper hand in discipline and military hardware it’s arguable that will be anywhere near enough.