Mehdi Hamid Issa, 26, of Niger, said he joined Moammar Gaddafi's military earlier this year because he needed money. He was captured by rebels on Wednesday in the Nafusa western mountains and is now being held in a jail in Ziltan. (Ernesto Londono/WASHINGTON POST)

Beleaguered by NATO’s bombing campaign, low morale and desertions, the Libyan army is relying heavily on fighters from sub-Saharan Africa as Moammar Gaddafi’s government struggles to beat back rebels forces east and west of the capital, captured fighters said in interviews.

Two Libyan army officers and three sub-Saharan African fighters captured by rebels after a recent battle in the country’s western mountains said Thursday that Libyan troops deployed in the area are running low on ammunition and fuel.

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.

Issa Munir, 22, from Mali, said he moved to the southern Libyan city of Sehba a year ago to work at a farm. Last month, he said, he was among a large group of sub-Saharan African laborers who were taken into custody and moved to Tripoli. In the capital, government officials offered him Libyan citizenship in exchange for taking up arms for Gaddafi, he said.

“I couldn’t refuse,” said Munir, who was wearing olive green pants and a stained white V-neck T-shirt. “Most of us have the same story: We were brought by force.”

The other two non-Libyan men, both from Niger, said they lost low-paying jobs after the fighting started and joined the force willingly when officials promised them good salaries.

Ibrahim Saleh Youssef, 26, said he had been working as a cleaner for a Brazilian company in the south. “I didn’t have money to eat,” the lanky man said, speaking barely above a whisper. “I didn’t even have enough to buy cigarettes.”

After surviving a terrifying barrage of artillery and shelling in al-Qualish on Wednesday, he said he raised his hands in surrender as the rebels stormed in. “I didn’t want to kill any Libyans,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone.”

The men’s accounts could not be independently confirmed. Rebel jailers told the detainees they were free to speak to two reporters who arrived at the jail unannounced, but gave them the option to decline. Rebel leaders say they intend to hold the men indefinitely, but might consider a prisoner swap arranged by the Red Cross.

Another Libyan military officer, Abu Jelah Dau Afra, 38, said the armed forces still have soldiers committed to defending Gaddafi. “Some of them love him deeply,” he said. “Others are just afraid.”

NATO’s bombing campaign has significantly weakened Gaddafi’s military hardware, Afra said. But, he added, the alliance’s bombs do not appear to have killed many soldiers because they usually run away from tanks and other large weapons as soon as they hear fighter planes approaching.

Libya, which has vast oil reserves and a small population, has long been a magnet for laborers from poorer African countries.

A 27-year Libyan military veteran who was captured by rebels in the western mountains in April said fellow officers have long resented Gaddafi’s reliance on foreign fighters.

“Gaddafi has done this because he knew a dark day was coming,” said the man, who is also being held in the Ziltan jail and declined to give his name, citing fears about the safety of his relatives.

The Libyan government Thursday claimed that it is the rebels who are importing fighters.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told the Associated Press in Tripoli that the government has evidence that the rebels in the east are fighting alongside Colombian mercenaries paid by the United Arab Emirates and Western allies. He said the government would present evidence to support the claim.