Bin Jawad: First real test in Libya's fighting

Watch: John Simpson came under fire as he travelled to Bin Jawad from Ras Lanuf

The scale of the battle here may be small, but the importance for the future of Libya, and just possibly for the wider region, is great.

On Sunday night the rebels' morale, which had previously been immensely high, took a serious knock when they failed to capture the small coastal town of Bin Jawad.

For the previous five days they had become used to brushing Col Muammar Gaddafi's troops aside without much difficulty, driving from place to place for 150 miles (240km) along the coast road and capturing town after town.

In Bin Jawad, however, Col Gaddafi's men used different tactics.

Here they are much closer to their power centre at Sirte, and it is easy to bring up aircraft and heavier weaponry. And, according to the rebels (though this remains unconfirmed), they used the inhabitants of Bin Jawad as human shields.

The rebels, by contrast, have long drawn-out lines of communication, and sometimes find it difficult to get fuel for their vehicles. If the allegation about the human shields is true, that made it even harder to attack the town.

So at some point during Sunday night they pulled back.

Changing balance

By this morning, the number of rebel troops along the road was far smaller. We pushed westwards as far as we could, and were fired at by men who were flanking the first of the pro-Gaddafi roadblocks outside the town.

When we got back to the strategic port town of Ras Lanuf, captured by the rebels on Friday night and the most important of their victories so far, we found that the defenders were greatly reduced in number and were expecting to be attacked at any moment.

Rebel fighters sit on a truck with an anti-aircraft weapon outside Ras Lanuf. Photo: 7 March 2011 The largely inexperienced rebels lack their enemy's firepower

Still, Col Gaddafi's army is not known for its speed and decisiveness, and - instead of following up their overnight success - its commanders preferred to bombard Ras Lanuf from the air and by rocket.

A Russian-made Sukhoi from Col Gaddfi's air force dropped two bombs close to the crossroads where the rebels had assembled, but far enough away to make the rebels wonder, as they have before, whether the pilots are deliberately setting out to miss. No-one was hurt on either occasion.

Soon afterwards a series of rockets hit the town in the area of the Hotel El Adeel, where several journalists - including the BBC team - spent the night.

Then, as so often seems to happen in this campaign, the balance began to change.

Although dozens of volunteers had fled from the area around Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf, a column of vehicles from rebel strongholds further back along the coast started to arrive, bringing fresh soldiers and weapons to the rebels' positions around Ras Lanuf.

The reinforcements were fewer in number than those who had left, but they often seemed to be trained soldiers who, a month ago, would probably have been serving in Col Gaddafi's own army.

Broadening campaign

It is a mistake to see this campaign as an outright civil war.

In skirmishes like these, as few as 100 men are fighting on each side. Most are lightly armed, and even the aircraft which are used on the government side are, as we have seen, remarkably ineffectual in their bombing - for whatever reason.

Yet if the rebels can get through to the city of Sirte, that will broaden the entire campaign.

A majority of people in the city are said to favour Col Gaddafi, whose tribe comes from the area, but there is also said to be strong opposition to him in Sirte itself, and even - so it has been suggested - within his tribe.

If Sirte fell, the road to the anti-Gaddafi towns of the north-west would open up. If the rebels cannot fight their way as far as that, there would probably be stalemate and perhaps even an opening up of old east-west rivalries in Libya.

But at present the rebels have been checked at a small place which is scarcely marked on the maps.

Bin Jawad remains the first real test of fighting quality between the two sides.

Key locations under control of pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces

Libya map

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Watch: John Simpson came under fire as he travelled to Bin Jawad from Ras Lanuf

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