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AP IMPACT: Libyan rebels held city despite odds

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 4 2011 10:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this April 30, 2011 file photo, a Libyan man cries during the funeral of four Libyan rebel fighters in the besieged city of Misrata, Libya. It took five weeks of fierce street battles _ on rooftops, in alleyways _ for Misrata's inexperienced rebels to wrest control of their city's commercial heart back from forces loyal to Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. When they finally succeeded in pushing government forces out of Libya's third-largest city in late April, it was the greatest head-to-head military victory yet in the uprising that threatens Gadhafi's 42-year hold on power.

Bernat Armangue, File, Associated Press

MISRATA, Libya — Tripoli Street is a bullet-scarred wasteland — littered with charred cars and tanks, its cafes and offices shattered. Yet for Misrata's civilians-turned-fighters, the boulevard is a prized trophy, paid for in blood, won with grit and guile.

It took five weeks of fierce street battles — on rooftops, in alleyways — for Misrata's inexperienced rebels to wrest control of their city's commercial heart from forces loyal to Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Up against armored units and professional sniper squads, they turned bottles, tires and trailer trucks into tools of war.

When they finally succeeded in pushing government forces out of Libya's third-largest city in late April, it was the greatest head-to-head military victory yet in the uprising that threatens Gadhafi's 42-year hold on power. The opposition controls much of eastern Libya, but Misrata is the only city in the west rebels have managed to hold.

"Our fighters weren't fighting from experience," said the local military spokesman, Ibrahim Beatelmal, noting that most had never touched a gun before joining the fight. "They had to make it all up as they went along."

The city remains surrounded, accessible only through its port and subjected to daily bombardments. The port was shelled Wednesday while an international aid ship was docked there, killing four people. After two months of siege, cemeteries accommodate rows of new graves and hospitals have transformed into battlefield clinics; doctors estimate that the siege's death toll has passed 1,000.

Yet amid the carnage, residents have organized to stave off hunger, allocate fuel and protect the city. They've erected sand berms along streets to absorb blasts, hacked down palm trees to delineate ambulance fast lanes, formed an array of administrative committees — all with a community spirit that revealed itself in many ways during an Associated Press reporter's weeklong stay.

Misrata is a merchant city, with a large professional class whose expertise has paid off in distinctive ways. Dermatologists treat blast victims. University students master street-fighting tactics.

"All of a sudden I became responsible for macaroni and onions," said Majdi Shibani, a telecommunications professor put in charge of food distribution — a daunting task in a sprawling city where all phone lines have been cut. His team oversees distribution of 400 tons of food per week from a room in the back of a hookah lounge, where customers smoke water pipes.

Donations of food have streamed in on boats from the Libyan diaspora, foreign countries and international organizations. There's little coordination, resulting in huge surpluses of, say, canned corn — which Shibani said Libyans hate.

The stalemate in Misrata mirrors the situation nationwide. Soon after the uprising against Gadhafi broke out on Feb. 15, the opposition took over Benghazi and other eastern towns, but its patchwork forces proved unable to make further gains even after U.S. and NATO airstrikes on Gadhafi's troops began in late March.

Meanwhile, government forces surrounded Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of the capital Tripoli, cutting it off and attacking from three sides. Unlike fighters in eastern Libya, who retreat across stretches of desert when attacked, Misrata's rebels can't run; their backs are to the Mediterranean Sea.

After several failed attacks on Misrata, government commanders sent a column of tanks blasting its way down Tripoli Street on March 16. Residents fled, and regime sniper teams moved in, building nests on a dozen of the city's tallest buildings, notably a nine-story insurance building. Gunfire from the rooftops killed and wounded scores of civilians.

The city's youth organized resistance. Led by a handful of retired army officers, they formed brigades of dozens of fighters, each assigned to a side street, said Samir al-Hadi, a grocer who led a group at Tripoli Street's southern end.

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