Libyan rebels in Brega shift focus to demining

AFP , Monday 25 Jul 2011

Libyan rebels in Brega say that fighting against Gaddafi has lost some intensity as a result of the mine problem

Rebel Fighters on the outskirts of Brega (Photo:Reuters)

Libyan rebels say demining efforts outside the eastern oil hub Brega are being hampered by a lack of specialised kit, and that fighting against Muamer Gaddafi's forces has lost some intensity.

"We have no choice. We have to clear the sand of mines," Mohammed Zawawy, a spokesman for the Union of Revolutionary Forces in Ajdabiya, told AFP.

He said the mine problem has sapped some momentum from the campaign to clear Brega of loyalists, although the rebels said Sunday they captured one soldier and sent scores more fleeing west to Bishir village on the road to Ras Lanuf.

Rebels have captured between 10 and 20 regime troops since they seized Brega on July 18, he said, adding that one prisoner claimed loyalist fighters had sown "over 45,000 mines" around the Mediterranean town.

Zawawi said the rebels have so far cleared some 200 mines in the Brega area, and that they do not know if the claim of 45,000 mines laid is an accurate representation of the scope of the problem or merely a scare tactic.

"We have no idea," Zawawy said. "They had a lot and we've found a lot. We believe Kadhafi put mines inside the residential areas and oil facilities."

But military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said the insurgency's expert engineers calculate that more than "40,000" mines have indeed been spread at random in and around Brega.

He said rebels had so far received no international assistance in their demining effort, and that they have only "very old equipment" such as stick metal detectors to carry out the task.

"We are trying to clear all that area by ourselves. We are advancing slowly slowly because of the mines. If you move, you can lose your life," Bani said.

Zawawy said Libyan experts are teaching rebels heading to the front how to clear the land, but that a shortage of gear means civilians-cum-fighters are struggling to defuse heavy anti-tank mines and plastic anti-personnel mines.

"We have some experts and tools to clear the land of mines, but a lot of our troops are doing it manually, without tools," he said.

This high-risk demining effort and a desire to avoid casualties has slowed the rebel campaign in Brega to a snail's pace, but rebels still estimate that only small, negligible pockets of resistance remain within the town.

"We believe there are a few troops left in the area because they do not fight back and shoot as much as they did at first," Zawawy said.

"We don't want to kill them. We want them to have a chance to withdraw... to either come over to our side or at least go all the way to Sirte," Gaddafi's home town and a loyalist stronghold on the coast road from Brega to Tripoli.

Zawawy said intercepted radio chatter suggests that the morale of the embattled strongman's forces is sagging in the absence of an easy way out.

"We listen to all their conversations. Radio chatter suggests they are down, disappointed, and that they don't want to fight but are sometimes forced to because Gaddafi has sent troops to shoot anyone who retreats and left groups of fighters without cars so they can't get away."

Rebel military officials are currently preventing journalists from getting close to Brega for security reasons, making it difficult to verify claims of shifts in the balance of power there.

The insurgency is pushing a two-pronged offensive, supported by targeted NATO air strikes, from the east and from the southwest before the annual Muslim fasting month of Ramadan begins at the start of August.

On Saturday, NATO-led warplanes attacked a regime military storage facility, a multiple rocket-launcher and a command and control node in the Brega area, the alliance said.

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