Military leaders, they said, are depending on the foreign fighters because many Libyan soldiers are conflicted about fighting their countrymen and have lost faith in the country’s longtime ruler. In interviews conducted separately at the rebel-run jail in Ziltan, the detainees said that as many as half the forces deployed by the Gaddafi regime to the front lines come from countries such as Niger and Mali.
The detainees’ accounts provide rare insight into the role foreign fighters are playing in Libya, as well as the fraying military strength of Gaddafi’s increasingly isolated government.
Gaddafi’s aides have denied that the government is using foreign fighters and have said the country’s troops remain strong and motivated. But the leader’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, acknowledged in a recent interview that the Libyan military’s fighting strength is far from ideal.
“One of our biggest mistakes was that we delayed buying weapons, especially from Russia, and delayed building a strong army,” the younger Gaddafi told Russia Today, an English-language news network, last week.
Jamil, a Libyan military officer detained Wednesday after rebels captured the city of al-Qualish, said the foreign fighters were pushed to the tip of the front line as rebels began pounding the city with rockets, tank shells and anti-aircraft missiles fired horizontally.
“They shoot without hesitation,” he said, sitting in the library of a school that rebels are using as a detention center.
Jamil and his men were cowered in fortified positions until the heavy weapons stopped battering the town, he said. When rebels streamed into the town on foot and cars, he considered whether to run back or surrender.
“I held my hands and surrendered,” said Jamil, who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals against his relatives. “We want to stop this killing and we don’t have enough ammunition.”
He said Libyan soldiers in Gaddafi’s military don’t want to fight their countrymen. “A Libyan sniper can’t shoot a Libyan,” he said. “This job is for a nonLibyan.”
Gaddafi has relied for years on nonLibyans to shore up his armed forces, and analysts say he has intentionally kept his military weak, fearing that a strong, conventional armed force could stage a coup.
While the Libyan soldiers characterized their sub-Saharan comrades as fearless fighters who follow orders without hesitation, the three foreign fighters captured Wednesday said many of them were coerced to take up arms.