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East rebels push frontline west after Gaddafi raid
Gaddafi forces sent warplanes deep into east.
March 3, 2011 4:15 by Reuters
Libyan rebel forces pushed their frontline against Muammar Gaddafi loyalists on Thursday west of Brega, where rebels had repulsed an attack a day earlier, and said they had captured a group of mercenaries.
Rebels showed this correspondent three young African men, who looked under 20 years of age, held at the town of al-Ugayla and who clutched small cases, looking cowed and fearful.
“They admitted they were mercenaries. The one who spoke Arabic admitted it,” said rebel volunteer Salah Zwei, after they were pushed into a car which rebels said would go to Ajdabiyah.
Government warplanes bombed towns deep in the rebel-held east, but the frontline on the ground has moved to the coastal town of al-Uqayla, which lies 40 km (25 miles) west of Brega, an oil exporting terminal and also a few miles short of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, also oil towns.
One major road runs along the Mediterranean coast, a vital artery between the eastern and western zones of Libya that divides those who have shaken off Gaddafi’s four decades in power and a region centred on Tripoli still under his control.
“There’s a Gaddafi forces checkpoint about 80 km (50 miles) from al-Uqayla with 50 Gaddafi soldiers there. Another 20 km (13 miles) on is a Gaddafi base, with about 100 vehicles and anti-aircraft guns outside,” said Nasr Ali, a defector from Gaddafi’s army who was driving to the east.
He was speaking to this Reuters correspondent after he had driven in from Ras Lanuf, the next town along the coast from al-Uqayla where rebels say Gaddafi forces have massed.
Like others further east, Ali supported a “no-fly” zone over Libya to prevent the aerial bombardments that have become a regular occurrence in the eastern towns of Brega and nearby Ajdabiya, where there is a major arms dumps seized by rebels.
“Bring Bush! Make a no-fly zone, bomb the planes,” he said, referring to President George Bush, who set up a no-fly zone over Iraq, which was later policed by his son George W. Bush.
Although rebels oppose any intervention by foreign ground forces, some want a U.N.-backed air exclusion zone.
The last rebel checkpoint in al-Ugayla was small. A few rebels stood guard armed with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers. Rebels said they had moved forces inland towards the Sahara desert to protect their flank.
This could not be independently confirmed.
To their rear, rebels — not always experienced fighters — are armed with tanks, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns and shoulder launched missile systems. Rebels have been bolstering defences around Ajdabiya and Brega.
Rebel forces say Gaddafi has turned to African mercenaries to fight his campaign as his Libyan soldiers melt away to join the rebels. The young Africans being held at al-Uqayla were surrounded by armed rebels.
“You were carrying guns, yes or no? You were with Gaddafi’s brigades, yes or no?” one of the rebels shouted at them. A silent youth was shoved onto his knees and into the dirt. A man held a pistol close to his face.
Another rebel soldier, Abdul Rahim Shumeigi, said: “They had security papers on them from Gaddafi saying they should not be harmed by anyone. They said they were from Niger and worked for a Turkish company.”
(Writing by Edmund Blair in Cairo; Editing by Peter Millership)