Libyan rebel morale spikes after week of gains

Libyan rebels saw significant progress on both the military and diplomatic front in recent days, even as Qaddafi’s regime disparaged their efforts.

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Asha Morshi makes the v-for-victory sign while holding the Holy Koran during Friday prayers in Benghazi, Libya, May 13.  Rodrigo Abd/AP

Asha Morshi makes the v-for-victory sign while holding the Holy Koran during Friday prayers in Benghazi, Libya, May 13. Rodrigo Abd/AP

Istanbul, Turkey

Pressure is mounting on the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi as rebels report a string of both military and diplomatic gains and NATO sharpens its airstrikes.

«Probably not since the defection of [former Foreign Minister Moussa] Koussa has morale so acutely increased,» says an opposition activist in the Libyan capital who could not be named for security reasons.

Blasts from two NATO attacks were heard in Tripoli on Friday morning, after 52 reported missions by NATO aircraft across Libya on Thursday – the latest in a string of attacks that have sometimes come very close to Colonel Qaddafi.

Protesters are increasingly taking to the streets of Tripoli – in some places launching armed attacks against Libya security forces, rebel sources there say. Antiregime fighters this week expanded their control in the western city of Misurata to include the airport; repelled an assault by pro-Qaddafi troops on Libya’s western border; and marched toward the eastern oil town of Brega.

On Friday, the leader of the rebels’ Transitional National Council, Mahmoud Jibril, was due to meet with top US national security officials at the White House, as the rebel council based in Libya’s second city of Benghazi called for more protests.

In London, the rebel delegation met Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who rolled out the red carpet and invited them to set up an office in London. He promised uniforms and body armor for police, and several millions in aid, but that was less than they were expecting.

Rebels’ rising spirits

Still, after three months of fighting that has seen front lines fluctuate and outgunned and disorganized rebel forces often unable to make concrete and defendable gains, the series of recent events has prompted optimism among the resistance.

«The gains in Misurata have been so effective at raising spirits because it is very close to [Tripoli],» the opposition activist in the capital told the Monitor. «It’s not associated with our desire or expectation to have [Misurata rebels] come and ‘liberate us’ but rather a significant indication of the regime’s inability to regain … ground so close to the stronghold of Tripoli.»

And already there has been a boost in defiance in the streets, which has been episodic, at best, since anti-Qaddafi protests first erupted in mid-February, burning symbols of the regime.

Civil disobedience was planned for after Friday prayers, according to the rebel activist. He cited a rise in «mini protests … more [rebel] flags being raised in different areas of the city,» more graffiti and «armed groups engaging in attacks more often and more potently.»

On Thursday in the district of Fashloum, this activist says, the headquarters building of a local Revolutionary Committee was burned – just as similar offices had been torched in February. Stepped-up raids in his neighborhood prompted people to go to their rooftops, clap, and shout ‘Allahu Akbar!’ – God is great.

All these events «contribute to the realization that day by day this regime is getting weaker and weaker,» says the opposition activist. «This realization is manifesting [itself] in increased activity in Tripoli, be it peaceful civil disobedience or armed resistance to security.»

Libyan regime criticizes NATO strikes

Qaddafi’s regime, for its part, has disparaged the rebels as Al Qaeda militants and «greasy rats,» and criticized NATO’s mission as a thinly veiled attempt at regime change.

Libya’s government spokesman Musa Ibrahim asserted earlier this week that rebels «are losing the battle. Their morale is very low.»

Qaddafi himself appeared on state television for the first time in almost two weeks on Wednesday night, meeting tribal leaders. The announcer said, «this proves the perseverance and permanence of the Libyan nation and its leader. God willing, they are victorious.»

While Libyan opposition leaders traveling in Europe and the US are requesting heavy weaponry, more training, and more NATO air support, there is also a sense – shared with government officials in Tripoli – that the recent spate of NATO airstrikes against Qaddafi’s compound and family residences are aimed at taking out the Libyan leader himself.

Mr. Ibrahim said Wednesday that Qaddafi had survived three separate strikes that targeted him, including one on April 30 that Libyan officials claim killed his son Saif al-Arab and three grandchildren. Qaddafi was in the residential house at the time but unhurt, Libyan officials said.

«There is suspicion within our ranks that NATO, driven by a US and UK and French desire, may be targeting areas of dual importance,» says the opposition activist. «Yes, they may well be command and control [targets], but they may be thinking, ‘hit them hard … and you will get the bunker next door too.'»

On Monday, the International Criminal Court (ICC)‘s chief prosecutor is due to present his findings on claims of crimes against humanity in Libya. The ICC said in a statement today that the Office of the Prosecutor would issue arrest warrants against «three individuals who appear to bear the greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity» in Libya since the uprising began in mid-February.

Gains on the western front

In Libya’s remote western mountains, meanwhile, rebels are reporting gains in fighting at points along the 90-mile-long Nafusah Mountain, a rebel enclave that stretches from the border with Tunisia to south of Tripoli.

Primary populated by ethnic Berbers – known as Amazigh – who have resisted Qaddafi’s rule throughout its nearly 42 years, this region has seen multiple engagements and steady rocket attacks by pro-Qaddafi forces since mid-February.

Recent fighting has focused on the Wazin-Dehiba border post, which the rebels captured nearly a month ago. Qaddafi loyalists recaptured it for a few hours since then, but footage aired Friday by Al Jazeera English showing rebels repelling a fresh attack by 24 vehicles with what it called «light rounds.»

«They can’t enter here. They’ve been trying now for a month,» a uniformed rebel told Al Jazeera while perched upon a mountain escarpment that overlooks the pro-Qaddafi positions in the valley below.

«They suffer losses in men and vehicles every time they try to advance, and our numbers are growing by the day,» said the rebel. «Our own morale is high, and I have young men wanting to join the battle on a daily basis, and thank God we are receiving more weapons too.»

Another rebel leader said pro-regime forces were not putting up much of a fight, reflecting reporting in recent weeks by this correspondent, who was told that conscript troops sometimes chose not to aim their weapons accurately on civilian centers.

«From Zintan to Nalut, Qaddafi’s forces have not been able to win one battle in these western mountains,» the rebel fighter told Al Jazeera. «They’ve not managed to stay in a battle for more than two hours before fleeing.»

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