Waiting game for rebels in western Libya
- 5 July 2011
- From the section Africa
The front line in Jebel Nafusa, the magnificent mountain range in western Libya, is not a good place to fight a war in the height of summer.
The temperature is in the high 40Cs (104F), and there is no shelter from the powerful sun. By 1000, the metal parts of an AK-47 which has been set down in the open are too hot to touch.
The rebel soldiers rarely seem to start before 0700, and by midday fighting has usually become impossible by mutual agreement.
Sometimes, an entire day goes past without a shot being fired.
Yet there are reasons for this which go well beyond the discomforts the soldiers have to endure.
Morale on the government side seems to be very low. There are indications on the front line in the mountain village of Kikla, for example, that the pro-Gaddafi soldiers would surrender quickly if their officers let them.
And many of the officers continue fighting because they are afraid their families will be killed or imprisoned if they go over to the other side.
Col Mohammed Tahish, a senior figure in the ministry of defence in Tripoli, defected to the rebels a fortnight ago. He explained how he had had to get his family out of the capital and into western Libya, which is largely controlled by the rebels. Only then could he leave himself.
He said he knew many people in Tripoli who wanted to go over to the rebels, but had to wait for a long time until their families were safe. "They're afraid that [Gaddafi] will kill their families or put them in prison," he said.
The rebels have pushed the pro-Gaddafi forces out of most of Jebel Nafusa, and our GPS indicated that from the front line at Kikla they were only 52 miles (84km) from the capital, Tripoli - close enough for some of the soldiers to be able to pick up a phone signal from there, and speak to their families.
But for the time being, the rebels seem unwilling to push the Gaddafi loyalists any farther back. The second in command of the entire western front, Col Moftah Ali Abdullah, explained why.
His bosses in the rebel capital, Benghazi, are worried that if their forces push on to the outskirts of Tripoli, which are only a couple of hours' drive away, there could be panic and widespread bloodshed in the city. Hundreds of civilian, perhaps more, could be killed.
So the rebels' high command wants to wait until the sizeable number of people who sympathise with them in Tripoli are prepared to start a rebellion there.
The hope is that at that point the Gaddafi regime will simply collapse, and the rebel troops here can simply push the pro-government troops aside and head straight for the capital.
When is this likely to happen? Most of the senior officers I have spoken to here are agreed: it will take something between a month and a month and a half.
In other words, they expect that by the end of August, they will be in control of Tripoli, and therefore of the country as a whole.
Timetables like this can often be wrong, of course.
Between now and then, starting at the end of July, the fasting month of Ramadan will begin: twenty-eight days, during which no-one will be able to eat or drink from dawn to dusk, in temperatures which may well be even higher than they are at present.
"We will continue to fight during Ramadan," said one senior rebel officer. "Nothing will change."
Well, perhaps; but the already slow pace of the fighting will surely become even slower.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of inevitability about the way the campaign is going.
Driving around the steep, twisting roads of the Jebel Nafusa, looking down on the plain which leads directly to Tripoli, it seems impossible to think that the Gaddafi regime will ever be able to recapture this area.
After 40 years of often severe repression, the Berber people whose heartland this area is (though it is not, it has to be stressed, theirs exclusively) have finally decided that it is safe for them to come out and express their Tamazight culture and language.
The curious Tamazight alphabet can be seen on walls right across the area, in jubilant slogans welcoming the revolution.
Exhibitions and workshops have sprouted up in towns and villages to teach people about their ethnic heritage, after the long years during which there were severe punishments for speaking and writing Tamazight openly.
The summer heat is intense, and many of the villages in Jebel Nafusa have been abandoned because of the fighting.
All the same, there is starting to be a real sense of rebirth here, even though the war is not yet over.