Christopher Stephen / The Irish Times – 2011-08-28 00:04:23
KILOMETRE 60, eastern Libyaâ€¨â€¨ (August 26, 2011) — British and French Special Forces are on the ground in eastern Libya, calling in air strikes and helping co-ordinate rebel units as they prepare to assault Sirte, the last coastal town still in the hands of pro-Muammar Gadafy forces, according to a rebel officer.
The soldiers have taken a leading role not only in guiding bombers to blast a path for opposition fighters but also in planning the offensive that broke the six-month Misurata siege, said Mohammed Subka, a communications specialist in the Al Watum brigade.
Yesterday afternoon, Subka and his unit waited at the rebel front line, known as Kilometre 60, aboard a column of battered black pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and a few tanks recently captured from Gadafy’s forces.
“We are with the England team,” he said. “They advise us.”â€¨â€¨Kilometre 60 lies in the flat, empty desert, no more than a sand-coloured mosque and a wrecked diner at a traffic intersection. Sirte, Gadafy’s birthplace, lies 130km away.
The advance on the city could not begin until loyalist units south of the road ahead were cleared from their positions, Subka said, flipping open his laptop to show a map — apparently provided by NATO — of artillery positions threatening the route. “We don’t worry about those units. They are NATO’s concern,” he said.
Defence sources have confirmed that British special forces have been on the ground in Libya for several weeks, along with special forces from Qatar, France and some eastern European states. Subka said British and French units had been operating in Misurata for several weeks, based somewhere near the city’s sprawling port, Kasa Ahmed.
A common complaint among Misurata commanders earlier in the conflict was that NATO had no ready way to answer requests for air support when lightly-equipped forces were attacked by tanks and heavy artillery. Subka, who was given the job of liaising with the British unit because he once worked as an aircraft despatcher at Tripoli airport, said that had now changed.
The alliance has provided sophisticated means of sending in requests for air strikes: “Sometimes e-mail, sometimes VHF [radio],” he said. “You send [the air strike request] to Misurata port.” The NATO team also helped plan the first breakout of the rebels two weeks ago when they cut through the government ring around the city, capturing the town of Tawarega.
The plan demanded close co-ordination between the Halbus brigade, making a frontal assault, and a secondary thrust through the desert to cut Tawarga off from loyalist reinforcements. Subka said it worked flawlessly. “The plan went to perfection, and not just the plan, also the timing.”
The British and French units also helped opposition fighters assault Zlitan last weekend in the first stage of the offensive that took rebel units into Tripoli. Testimony to the deadly effect of NATO’s bombing was evident along the highway leading out of the city. Concrete buildings used as bunkers by Gadafy’s forces were flattened, while tanks were ripped apart. Further south, all that remained of an ammunition truck was a blackened carpet of splinters.
Opposition commanders would rather avoid an attack on Sirte, hoping the fall of Tripoli will persuade its defenders to lay down their arms without a fight. But a spate of attacks from Sirte on Misurata using scud missiles — the heaviest weapon in Gadafy’s armoury — has added urgency to their advance. At least four of the rockets have been intercepted seconds before they were due to hit the city, reportedly hit by missiles fired by a US navy cruiser operating in the Gulf of Sirte.
Misuratans fear that, sooner or later, one scud will get through, and the attacks have provoked the one source of tension between NATO and its rebel liaison officers.
Looking out across the empty desert, the weary-looking Subka said he wanted the war to end so he could train to be a pilot and spend time riding his motorbike. “We are fighting every day for six months, I’m tired of war,” he said. “I don’t want to kill anyone.” Then he announced that it was time to go, boarded his jeep, and the long column snaked its way towards Sirte.â€¨â€¨
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