The pace and outcome of the battles have given rebels hope that the tide could be shifting in a campaign that has clearly put Gaddafi’s forces on the defensive. The hours-long battle that began before dawn on Wednesday included thundering barrages of artillery and rockets fired from both sides, and ended as truckloads of rebels returned from the battlefields with a new hoard of captured weapons.
“You can see we are going forward,” said Abu Hakim, a rebel fighter. “If we go on like this, we will get to Tripoli very soon.’’
At least seven rebels were killed in the battle and scores were wounded, rebel leaders said. It was unclear whether government troops were killed in the battle.
Until now, rebels in the flat terrain east of the capital have received more support from NATO fighter planes and trainers than those in the west. Rebel leaders in the west attribute their successes to a well-thought-out battle plan and to familiarity with the hilly desert terrain, but they say they have also been helped by NATO’s recent strikes targeting Gaddafi’s fighting positions in and around the mountains.
After Wednesday’s battle, rebel leaders said they forced Gaddafi troops out of the town of al-Qualish, putting rebels within striking distance of Gharyan, a city 60 miles south of Tripoli along the government-controlled supply route that leads south. Rebels leaders contend that the regime is using the route to resupply its arsenals.
Battle gains on the northern edge of the mountains, meanwhile, have extended the rebel-controlled area closer to Zawiyah, a city 40 miles west of the capital along the coastal road that connects Tripoli with Tunisia.
“All the towns have started working together,” said Col. Abdullah Mahdi, a 48-year-old officer who defected from the Libyan Air Force days after the uprising began in February and is now a rebel commander. “After each battle, we’ve gained weapons from Gaddafi’s forces.”
The western mountain revolt
The revolt in the western mountains began in mid-February after protests in the eastern city of Benghazi triggered a popular uprising across Libya. As the unrest began to turn violent, Gaddafi sent a confidant to the western town of Ziltan to ask tribal leaders to provide 1,000 fighters to shore up the regime’s forces in the east, residents said.
But the request angered many Ziltan residents, coming on the the heels of uprisings that ousted autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, which both share borders with Libya. After an assembly was convened to discuss the government’s request for fighters, a small government protest broke out outside, said Musa Edweb, 50, who attended the meeting.
“We thought it would be a shame to send our people,” said Edweb, who has since become a rebel strategist.
Within 24 hours, the Ziltan’s police station, courthouse and intelligence building were set ablaze. Gaddafi’s forces soon cut power and the cellphone network in the city, a tactic employed elsewhere as the rebellion spread.
Within two months, the rebels had taken control of the southern border town of Wazin, which leads to Tunisia. But the most notable rebel gains have come only in the last month, after rebels managed to drive Gaddafi forces away from the rebels’ mountain garrison town of Ziltan.
“In the beginning, he was attacking us,” Edwab said. “Now he’s very weak and cannot attack any city in the mountains.”
Rebel leaders say they don’t make aggressive pushes without NATO’s backing, fearing their fighters could be mistakenly hit in coalition strikes, as some of their counterparts in the east have. To communicate, they rely on a slow Internet connection to relay messages via other rebels to NATO advieors based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The first maneuvering in Wednesday’s battle began late Tuesday night as rebel leaders quietly moved fighters, tanks and rocket-launchers to positions ringing the western edge of the town of Qalish.
Gaddafi troops fired GRAD rockets as the rebels moved in; rebels said they fought back using tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft missiles fired horizontally. They then streamed into the city, where Gaddafi troops returned fire for a few hours before retreating, according to the rebels.
By 2 p.m., Gaddafi’s fighters retreated, leaving several vehicles, shell cans and anti-aircraft machine guns, rebels said.
Soon, ambulances carrying wounded rebels and pickup trucks packed with seized cans of ammunition began streaming back west. Fighters in the backs of pickup trucks shouted “God is great!” as they drove captured Gaddafi soldiers to Ziltan.
Some of rebel fighters were wounded by what they described as mines planted by Gaddafi troops in recent days.
Mohamed Ibrahim, 22, was wounded in the leg by shrapnel from a land mine while he and a few rebels were on foot.
“These kinds of bombs are not for people,” Ibrahim said while doctors treated him Wednesday afternoon at the hospital in Ziltan. “They are intended for trucks.”