Frontlines hard to find in Libya's struggle

The Associated Press
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 2:12 PM

RAS LANOUF, Libya -- Just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Moammar Gadhafi's hometown, something didn't feel right.

There were no signs of the rebel army, and we were getting perilously close to where the government forces were supposed to be.

In the distance we could see civilians manning the checkpoint into the town of Bin Jawad. They were not the exuberant gunmen flashing victory signs we were used to seeing in the rebel-controlled towns. There was also no sign of the flag of the old monarchy that had become the new symbol of the revolution.

Our driver quietly pulled our own rebel flag off the dashboard and began turning the car around, as it appeared we had stumbled through the lines into the latest no man's land of Libya's uprising.

After a week-long stalemate, a time when rebel military gave no signs it was interested in advancing, a government strike against oil installations seems to have reignited the war in eastern Libya.

Earlier in the week, government forces from Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and the gateway to western Libya, moved against the lightly guarded oil facilities in Ras Lanouf and Brega, which together export some two-thirds of the country's oil.

Local rebel militias, later aided by their compatriots in Benghazi, fought them off and started a push westward that has the Libyan rebel army playing catch up.

These days it can be a challenge to find the farthest limit of the rebel advance west, with every checkpoint providing conflicting information about the safety of the road ahead and the location of friendly forces.

After retaking Brega on Wednesday, rebel forces pushed out about 30 miles (45 kilometers) toward its sister oil refinery at Ras Lanouf. Army units soon followed and gave every indication they were digging in - until abruptly on Friday dozens of pickup trucks of volunteers went roaring off to the west.

"We took the army camp near Ras Lanouf last night at 7 p.m., but there were few weapons left, and the soldiers escaped," said Borawi Saleh, an oil engineer and old veteran of the Libyan army who joined rebel forces as a volunteer.

"All of the army, I am sure, don't like Moammar. They are just following orders and after a little fighting they run away," he said, explaining the victory of a rag tag mixture of professional soldiers and enthusiastic volunteers riding in trucks with machine guns bolted on the back.

There has been little sign of the creaky armored vehicles the rebel army paraded around in the eastern cities after Gadhafi's forces fled.

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