ZINTAN, Libya — Rebels battling Moammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya’s western mountains fear that supply shortages and other hurdles could prevent them from making major headway before fighting is likely to slow for Ramadan next month.
Rebel leaders say that limited fuel, water and food could take a toll on the fighting force as temperatures soar in the arid mountain ridge where the rebels have been slowly but steadily gaining ground on troops loyal to Gaddafi.
“It will be more difficult for us,” Col. Juma Ibrahim, a senior rebel commander, said of the period of religious observance during which many Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Ramadan begins toward the start of August.
Even as the rebels look to sustain their momentum after a series of mountain victories, there are few signs that the tide is shifting definitively against Gaddafi and his troops.
Fighting on two major fronts in the east remains largely deadlocked, with neither side able to mount continued, large-scale advances. And Gaddafi remains in control of large swaths of the country, including stronghold Tripoli and a key corridor east of the capital that is a vital conduit for supplies.
“Most people are thinking only about weapons,” said Ibrahim, a Libyan air force pilot who defected and is one of the senior rebel commanders in the Nafusa Mountains. “But we should be thinking about everything: water, food, shoes, clothes, equipment.”
Ibrahim said Islam permits fighters to forgo fasting during Ramadan in times of war, but he said rebel leaders hope to at least make bold strides before the end of the month.
“We don’t want to be fighting during Ramadan,” he said in a recent interview in the rebel military command center in Zintan, which has become a garrison town. “We’re trying very hard to finish” the march toward Tripoli before the end of the month.
Gaddafi’s government appears intent on holding on to Gharyan, the last mountain town that sits on a major highway to Tripoli. Government minders took Western journalists to the city Sunday in an effort to show that support for Gaddafi remained strong there.
But the Associated Press reported that graffiti in Gharyan had been painted over, apparently to cover anti-Gaddafi slogans, though phrases such as “Libya free” remained visible.
Although mountain rebels benefit from knowing the terrain better than their enemy, many of the squads are poorly equipped and trained. Fighters commonly barrel into battle in the back of pickup trucks, some carrying century-old rifles.
“We don’t have helmets or body armor,” said rebel fighter Hussein Muhammad, 30, a former soldier in the Libyan army. “Many haven’t had any training. These are students, doctors, engineers and civilians.”
Having wrested control of the village of al-Qualish last week, the rebels are gearing up for battles for Asabiah, the next town en route to Tripoli, and then Gharyan. Controlling the latter would constitute an important victory because it would choke off one of the two gateways that Gaddafi’s military uses to resupply forces in Tripoli.
Ibrahim said rebel leaders have been in contact with residents of Gharyan, trying to assess their willingness and readiness to side with the rebels. “They are preparing themselves,” he said. “The people of Gharyan need to be ready. They need weapons, they need equipment.”
Recent rebel advances and NATO strikes on the Libyan army’s tanks and rocket launchers have put the government’s forces on the defensive.
As rebels have won terrain in the mountains, troops loyal to Gaddafi have sought to slow their progress by using antitank and antipersonnel mines, according to rebels and Human Rights Watch researchers.
“Placing mines means rebel fighters can’t do a stealth encroachment on their position,” said Sidney Kwiram, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has been documenting minefields in the mountains. “If there continues to be a pattern of mining areas where Gaddafi forces are taking position, civilians will have a hard time returning. There are serious risks for their safety.”
After the battle for al-Qualish on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said it documented 240 antipersonnel mines and 72 antitank mines that had been placed along roads the rebels used to move in on the village.
Ibrahim, the commander, said the minefields have emerged as one of the rebels’ chief concerns. “We don’t have enough people who are experts in this matter,” he said.
If rebels succeed in capturing Gharyan, Ibrahim said, they would plan an offensive toward Tripoli, from several locations in the mountains.
The feasibility of such a move would depend heavily on how aggressively NATO fighter planes back the rebels in coming weeks by striking regime military targets between the mountains and Tripoli.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last week that the coalition, whose mandate allows it to use force to protect civilians, has no plans to slow down operations during Ramadan.
“We would hope that the Gaddafi regime will stop attacking and bombing its own people during Ramadan,” he told reporters in Brussels.
Rebels in the mountains say they are grateful that NATO has stepped up efforts to degrade Gaddafi’s fighting power in and around the mountains. But they say the coalition could do far more. For instance, the rebels in the mountains do not have a direct line of communication with NATO headquarters and must exchange messages through European military advisers in the eastern city of Benghazi.
“NATO has helped us a lot and saved us in many battles,” said Col. Abdullah Mahdi, another air force officer who defected and joined the rebels fighting in the mountains. “But why can’t a NATO representative come here and stay?”