Libya unrest: Football stars defect to rebels

Juma Gtat, goalkeeper in national Libyan football team Juma Gtat urged Col Gaddafi "to leave us alone"

A group of 17 leading Libyan football figures have announced their defection to the rebels.

They include the nation's goalkeeper, Juma Gtat, three other national team members, and the coach of Tripoli's top club al-Ahly, Adel bin Issa.

Mr Gtat and Mr bin Issa announced the group's defection to the BBC during a late night meeting in the rebel-held Nafusa Mountains in western Libya.

It comes on the heels of defections by military officers.

Propaganda blow

At their hotel in the town of Jadu I met goalie Juma Gtat relaxing in his room.

"I am telling Col Gaddafi to leave us alone and allow us to create a free Libya," he said as we sat on his hotel bed in front of other players.

"In fact I wish he would leave this life altogether," he added with a laugh.

In football-mad North Africa, the defections are clearly a propaganda blow for Col Gaddafi. But he has always resisted any pressure, political or military, to leave office.

And he has some advantages on the various battlefields in this war across Libya.

Here, in the rebel-held Western Mountains, in besieged Misrata in the centre, and in the east, the long-time Libyan leader has most of the heavy weapons - such as multiple rocket launchers and tanks.

The rebels mostly have small machine guns and, in some cases, only ancient rifles.

The longer-range rockets and artillery at Col Gaddafi's command mean he can often pin the rebels down to their positions.

Mr bin Issa, told me he had chosen to come to the Western Mountains "to send a message that Libya should be unified and free".

"I hope to wake up one morning to find that Gaddafi is no longer there," he added.

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Desert units

Sports stars matter in the battle for public opinion. But the rebels still need to win some decisive military victories if they are to advance.

In the Western Mountains, they have managed to seize most of the high ground, taking control of a series of towns.

I have travelled from Wazzin, hard on the Tunisian border, to the rebel stronghold of Jadu.

Although some of the towns in between have suffered serious attacks, they remain in rebel hands.

But troops loyal to Col Gaddafi hold the plains and valleys below.

The colonel also holds the capital, its approaches, and large parts of this mainly desert country.

So far, most of the attention has of course been on the heavy fighting for coastal cities, where most of Libya's population live.

But Col Gaddafi also has arms caches and military units deep in the Sahara Desert - some of which have not yet been deployed.

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