A British fighter jet bombed the Libyan city of Sirte on May 8, 2011. The imperialists have been bombing the North African state since March 19., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Libya conflict: British and French soldiers help rebels prepare Sirte attack
Soldiers on ground in eastern Libya have guided bombers to create path for opposition fighters towards Gaddafi's birthplace
Chris Stephen at Kilometre Sixty guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 August 2011 19.28 BST
British and French special forces are on the ground in eastern Libya, calling in air strikes and helping rebel units as they prepare to assault Sirte, the last coastal town still in the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces, a rebel officer has told the Guardian.
The soldiers have taken a leading role not only in guiding bombers to blast a path for opposition fighters but also in planning the offensive that finally broke the six-month siege of Misrata, Mohammed Subka, a communications specialist in the Al Watum (My Home) brigade, said.
On Thursday afternoon, Subka and his unit waited at the rebel frontline, known as Kilometre Sixty, aboard a column of battered, black pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and a few tanks recently captured from Gaddafi's forces.
"We are with the England team," he told the Guardian. "They advise us."
Kilometre Sixty lies in the flat, empty desert, no more than a sand-coloured mosque and a wrecked diner at a traffic intersection. Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace, lies 80 miles away.
The advance on the city could not begin until loyalist units south of the road ahead were cleared from their positions, Subka said, flipping open his laptop to show a map – apparently provided by Nato – of artillery positions threatening the route. "We don't worry about those units – they are Nato's concern," he said.
There were reports last night from a pro-Gaddafi TV station, al-Orouba, that Sirte was being bombed in air strikes but gave no further details or source.
Defence sources have confirmed to the Guardian that British special forces have been on the ground in Libya for several weeks, along with special forces from Qatar, France and some eastern European states.
Subka said British and French units had been operating in Misrata for several weeks, based somewhere near the city's port, Kasa Ahmed. Of the two, he said the British were the more friendly.
A common complaint among Misrata commanders earlier in the conflict was that Nato had no ready way to answer requests for air support when lightly-equipped forces were attacked by tanks and heavy artillery.
Subka, who was given the job of liaising with the British unit because he once worked as an aircraft dispatcher at Tripoli airport, said that had now changed.
The alliance has provided sophisticated means of sending in requests for air strikes: "Sometimes email, sometimes VHF [radio]," he said. "You send it [the air strike request] to Misrata port."
The Nato team also helped plan the first breakout of the rebels two weeks ago when they captured the town of Tawarga.
The plan demanded close co-ordination between the Halbus Brigade, making a frontal assault on the town, and a secondary thrust through the desert to cut Tawarga off from loyalist reinforcements.
Subka said the plan worked flawlessly. "It was a very beautiful plan," he added. "The plan went to perfection, and not just the plan, also the timing. Even the Nato operations room sent us a commendation."
The British and French units also helped opposition fighters assault Zlitan at the weekend in the first stage of the offensive that took rebel units into Tripoli.
Testimony to the deadly effect of Nato's bombing was evident along the highway leading out of the city.
Concrete buildings used as bunkers by Gaddafi's forces were flattened, while tanks were ripped apart, their turrets and tracks strewn across the road. Further south, all that remained of an ammunition truck was a blackened carpet of splinters.
Opposition commanders would rather avoid an attack on Sirte, hoping the fall of Tripoli will persuade its defenders to lay down their arms without a fight.
But a spate of attacks from Sirte on Misrata using scud missiles – the heaviest weapon in Gaddafi's armoury – have added urgency to their advance.
At least four of the rockets have been intercepted seconds before they were due to impact on the city, reportedly hit by missiles fired by a US navy cruiser operating in the Gulf of Sirte.
Misratans, after six months of near-constant bombardment, fear that, sooner or later, one scud will get through, and the attacks have provoked the one source of tension between Nato and its rebel liaison officers.
Subka said he watched a scud come down in the sea near Misrata and called Nato to complain that it had not been intercepted. "They told me: 'We intercepted them,'" he said. "I said: 'You did this underwater?"
Subka insisted the working relationship with the British team was good, and their advice was again being sought as the rebels of Misrata, closing on Sirte from the west, co-ordinate with separate rebel forces from Brega moving in from the east.
Looking out across the empty desert, the weary-looking fighter said he wanted the war to end so he could train to be a pilot and spend time riding his motorbike. "We are fighting every day for six months, I'm tired of war," he said. "I don't want to kill anyone."
Then he announced that it was time to go, boarded his jeep, and the long column snaked its way towards Sirte.
Cloak and dagger Low-key role of SAS
British special forces soldiers in Libya currently number fewer than 30, but the size of the deployment could be increased if the security situation deteriorates and the hunt for Gaddafi and his entourage drags on.
SAS troops have so far taken an undercover role, training rebel groups in advance of the attack on Tripoli. They have been working with French commandos and special forces from a number of east European countries. British defence officials, perhaps for political reasons, are emphasising the role played by Qatari special forces, notably in the storming of Gaddafi's compound, and those of the UAE.
SAS soldiers, whose role in Libya was first reported in the Guardian, have long experience of hunting down prominent individuals, a task they carried out in Bosnia in the search for war criminals, in Iraq, where they tracked down leading al-Qaida operatives, and in Afghanistan, where US generals praised their role in killing Taliban commanders.
However, in Libya their primary task is likely to remain that of advisers, UK defence officials said. Their presence in any final shoot-out with Gaddafi would not be welcome, either in Libya or in London, officials suggest.