Friday, April 29, 2011

Libya News Update: Government Arms Youth, Workers Against NATO and Western-backed Rebels

Libya's civilian fighters

Gadhafi portrays large-scale arming to protect home front

By Karin Laub
Associated Press

GAZAHIYA, Libya - A 22-year-old student balanced an unloaded grenade launcher on his shoulder, grunted loudly in place of an explosion as he pulled the trigger, then handed the weapon to the next man.

The military drill on the lawn of a clinic in a remote village in government-controlled western Libya was part of what Moammar Gadhafi's regime has tried to portray as a large-scale arming and training of the home front. Reporters on a government tour were also taken to a school where two teenage boys fired Kalashnikov rifles in the air.

The scenes appeared to have been hastily arranged. Men at a desert shooting range - barrels set up as targets on a rocky plain - said they had been bused to the site for the first time that day. A few dozen middle-school boys were participating in a military rally in their school yard and some said they had received their fatigues just a day earlier.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said last week that hundreds of thousands of rifles were being given to civilians to defend the home front, a claim impossible to verify because of tight limits on journalists. About a dozen Libyans interviewed in three different areas recently said they had been handed Kalashnikovs from municipal weapons depots.

The reports that the government was arming supporters first emerged at the start of the uprising against Gadhafi in mid-February. The government says it is arming people to defend against foreign ground troops - even though there are none in western Libya - rather than to fight fellow Libyans.

However, the attempt to show civilians training with weapons could be a sign Gadhafi loyalists are growing more nervous about their grip on western Libya. There has been persistent fighting in two major pockets of rebel resistance in that part of the country, including the city of Misrata, where rebels have held out during a two-month onslaught.

Those training this week in the Tarhouna district, 45 miles southeast of the capital of Tripoli, seemed unsure of who their enemy was. Some struggled with whether they would shoot at fellow Libyans who have risen up against Gadhafi.

Volunteers said they had been told they must defend their homes against NATO ground troops but would not be asked to go to the front.

Student Sanna Kanouni, 16, said she was learning how to handle a rifle to repel the "barbarian, colonial crusader aggression." Asked what she knew about the rebels in eastern Libya, she said they were drug-taking foreigners, not Libyans - repeating a line put out by the government.

Omar Musbah Omar, 23, said that he had been training off and on for the last month and that he and his four brothers had Kalashnikovs to keep at home. He said he would never raise a weapon against a fellow Libyan. But, he said, "we're ready for NATO."

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Libya Arms Civilians to Fight Insurgency

Wall Street Journal

Libyan authorities are instructing civilian volunteers, some as young as 11, in the use of automatic rifles and distributing the weapons among households here to combat an insurgency against Col. Moammar Gadhafi, according to people being trained.

The extent and quality of the instruction, which the government stage-managed for foreign journalists Wednesday in this Gadhafi stronghold, are unclear. But the effort, if widely carried out, would appear to raise the risk of widening Libya's 10-week-old conflict.

"We want every home to have a Kalashnikov in case of necessity to fight against the enemy," Abdel al-Muftah, who oversees the training in Tarhouna, told students in a high school classroom, a pair of binoculars hanging over his desert-camouflage uniform. "Any day now, we expect the enemy to attack us here."

Behind him as he spoke, 16-year-old Sannah Kanouni fumbled with a Kalashnikov rifle, trying to follow a trainer's tip on disassembling it. The gun toppled on its side.

Losing focus, Ms. Kanouni got swept up in a mini-demonstration by her classmates, pumping her fist and chanting: "Only Allah, Moammar and Libya!"

Adult weapons trainers led a similar rally in the courtyard of an elementary school, firing their weapons skyward. Among the participants was Abdullah Iyad, a fifth grader in a brand-new camouflage uniform his mother had purchased. Smiling, the 11-year-old said he had just received his first hour of training to take apart a Kalashnikov and put it back together.

The foreign journalists had been bused to this rural district 80 kilometers, or 50 miles southeast of Tripoli to watch weapons training at schools, the grounds of a clinic and a windswept desert plain.

As did Ms. Kanouni, many of the trainees displayed more enthusiasm for their 69-year-old leader, at least when television cameras were rolling, than competence with the weapons placed in their hands.

The government's message was that people here and in other rural districts outside Tripoli would pose an obstacle to any advance by the rebels toward the capital from the cities they hold in eastern Libya. This community of 300,000 people is seat of the Tarhouna tribe, a pillar of Col. Gadhafi's regime.

Yet people interviewed here about their training said they would simply defend their home ground rather than join in any government offensive. Reflecting the government's line, many of them sounded incredulous that Libyans had risen against Col. Gadhafi, whom they said was being attacked mainly by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with an assist on the ground from militants of Al Qaeda.

"Our enemy is the barbarian, colonialist crusader aggression," said Ms. Kanouni, who wore a black headscarf fully covering her hair. "It's NATO, [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and Barack Obama."

Col. Gadhafi's government has in the past distributed weapons to civilians, including children, and for years has put high school students through military instruction. But many adults being trained now say they are receiving weapons for the first time, and school officials here say military training is now being given to children before high school, though they say it is not required below seventh grade.

Mr. al-Muftah, the training overseer, said the new emphasis on arming civilians here began after NATO air strikes demolished a sprawling local army facility in late March in its campaign to blunt Col. Gadhafi's armed assault on protesters seeking his ouster. The wreckage of dozens of buildings resembling hangars and the remains of scattered armored vehicles were visible behind a tall concrete wall that had been partly blasted away.

He said about 200 people were being trained for four hours each day for up to nine days at each of 15 locations in the district. Each person completing the training goes home with a Russian-made Kalashnikov, he said.

"My job is to lead a group to fight NATO; we heard NATO will bring in soldiers on the ground," said Moamar Abugarar, a 37-year-old high school Arabic teacher who is helping to train 40 men, ages 18 to 70, on the lawn of a local clinic.

He said his pupils—drivers, computer engineers, doctors and farmers—were learning to use Kalashnikovs, shoulder-fired grenade launchers and Russian-made artillery guns mounted on pickup trucks.

Those weapons, along with some M-60 machine guns, also were on display outside town along with 100 volunteers who had been bused from Tarhouna to fire them across the desert and pose for TV crews.

Gadhafi Girds for Long Survival Battle Omar Musbah Omar, a 23-year-old jobless resident of Tarhouna, said the desert gathering was more than a media pseudo-event.

He said he and each of his three brothers had recently been given Kalashnikovs and trained to use them—his first such instruction since high school.

But he voiced a sentiment heard from other recent trainees: If the regime's enemy really turns out to be Libyans, rather than some foreign force, he would try to reason with them as brothers rather than shooting. "I'd put my gun down," he said.

NATO Intercepts Libyan Ships Laying Mines

Wall Street Journal

North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials Friday said they had intercepted Libyan government ships laying mines in the harbor of the besieged port city of Misrata in eastern Libya.

NATO officials declined to immediately release further details. They said their more immediate focus was closely monitoring the movements of forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in northwest Libya, and that NATO is preparing to ramp up its military efforts near the Tunisian border.

NATO's Operations Director for the mission characterized NATO's strategy as a change of tack. "Our campaign will now shift targets to now hit more pro-Gadhafi troops targeting civilians," said Brigadier General Rob Weighill in comments relayed by video to Brussels from Naples. "We cannot, and will not, disclose the plan. You will see the results in the next few days."

Asked what he meant, he said NATO was watching "more activity in Zintan and Yefren," two cities near the Tunisian border.

Brig. Gen. Weighill said NATO's mission has been, and will continue to be, successful. "We know these air strikes are having a serious impact on Gadhafi's ability to hurt his own people."

He said NATO still couldn't confirm the deaths this week of pro-Gadhafi forces. "Of course, we regret any loss of human life, especially if it involves forces protecting civilians."

Brig. Gen. Weighill said Col. Gadhafi's regime is getting more aggressive. "Pro-Gadhafi forces continue to shell the citizens of Misrata with longer-range artillery, mortar and rockets," he said. "They are indiscriminately firing high explosives and their rounds into the cities."

He called the actions "morally wrong," adding that the government has disabled a desalination plant in Misrata and continues to hide behind women and children in the city.

Still, NATO officials denied they were trying to kill Gadhafi. "It is not our policy to target and attempt to kill an individual," said Brig. Gen. Weighill said.

NATO officials said that while NATO is protecting civilians, the rebels are still facing an uphill road. Abdel-Fatah Younes, a rebel leader, met with NATO officials on Thursday. NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said it was for an "exchange of views."

Brig. Gen. Weighill downplayed hopes that the rebels were gathering momentum in their battle against pro-Gadhafi forces. "To suggest they're winning would be overly optimistic," said Brig. Weighill. "They are putting up a very spirited fight. They are being supported on a daily, hourly basis by NATO aircraft that are striking forces close to civilian populations."

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has delivered his first report to the U.N., said Ms. Romero. The report makes clear that NATO's "campaign has stopped large-scale attacks on civilians in Libya, and has allowed humanitarians missions access to the city of Misrata," she said.

"It is a very fluid situation on the ground but the actions of NATO forces have saved many, many lives and will continue to do so."

Write to John W. Miller at

Libyan fighting spills into Tunisia

By Scott Peterson, Staff writer April 29, 2011
Dehiba, Tunisi

Libya's civil war spilled into southern Tunisia on Friday, as scores of troops loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi burst across the border and into a nearby town after failing to recapture a remote border post that has become a rebel lifeline.

Two Libyan government rockets landed in the Tunisian town of Dehiba and angry residents attacked one of the Libyan military vehicles with stones, causing it and its antiaircraft gun to overturn, killing the driver.

The presence of armed forces blasting their weapons inside a neighboring country would have been an international incident anywhere else. But the ebb and flow of this conflict – and the porous desert border between Libya and Tunisia – meant that Tunisian officials could do little to stop the incursion.

The Tunisia military and border police pulled back entirely from their border positions during the heaviest fighting late Thursday.

The rebel flag was raised again at this post on Friday morning, the final result of a three-pronged attack by Colonel Qaddafi's forces that began Thursday afternoon. The battle initially brought victory to loyalists – and a raising of their green flag for the first time since rebels seized control here one week ago.

Battle on the border

But a fierce battle that stretched into the night saw loyalist troops surrounded and finally forced to flee, with 162 entering Tunisia with 18 vehicles.

The Tunisian military disarmed the Libyans, but then escorted them back to an illegal crossing point frequented by smugglers. The loyalists were given back their arms and expected to resume their fight.

"Dehiba is very important for the [anti-Qaddafi] rebels for resupply – they are battling for that corner," says Samir Abdelmounem, a Tunisian doctor who treated wounded rebels and Qaddafi loyalists alike in the Dehiba hospital.

"And this population feels great solidarity with [the rebels], like they are family," says Dr. Abdelmounem. The Tunisians "detest Qaddafi's soldiers, they have a horror of them."

Tunisian soldiers were posted in front of the hospital, he said, because "people wanted to come here and finish them off."

Two houses in Dehiba, a couple miles back from the border, were hit with Libyan rockets. Stray bullets struck one Libyan refugee boy in the foot and wounded a Tunisian man.

Surprise attack

Rebels said they were surprised at the attack by Qaddafi forces and said they had hired local guides in the difficult desert mountain terrain, and to provide details of rebel strength and location.

"Even the Nalutis [locals from the nearest Libyan town of Nalut] were astonished: How did they come from that way?" says a rebel named Wajdi who works on the Tunisian side of the border.

"The rebels learned something because of that; we will never leave this area weak again," says Wajdi.

Neither will they depend on NATO for help: Wajdi was in direct contact with NATO during the fighting, providing real-time details of possible targets.

"I was talking to them live ... and nothing," says Wajdi.

"Unfortunately we supply them information but we keep waiting a long time for a reaction."

As he spoke, a column of black smoke rose from the Libyan side of the border, where rebels burned the clothes and personal effects of the fleeing Qaddafi loyalists. One dead loyalist had had his toes tied together, apparently to prevent him running away before he died.

For two and a half months, rebels in Libya's remote western mountains, which are dominated by ethnic Berbers who have always challenged Qaddafi's rule, have taken up arms to join the antigovernment revolution.

Crucial crossing for rebels

This border crossing has played a significant role. Rebel capture of it a week ago was a blow to Tripoli and enabled rebels to boost their long-hobbled supply chain, leading to an upswing in fighting.

Tunisian national guardsmen said they believed some of the Qaddafi loyalists who crossed Friday were intent on attacking a camp of Libyan refugees on the edge of Dehiba.

That failed, but there was drama in the Dehiba hospital, where the 12 injured Qaddafi soldiers were taken, along with three injured rebels. Doctors were struck by the fact the loyalist troops appeared so young, and that two were so traumatized that they tried to run away upon arrival, and had to be caught by Tunisian soldiers.

Hospital staff immediately separated the rebels and loyalists into two different wings of the building.

Explained Abdelmounem: "It's so we don't have any more problems than we already have."

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