Dafneya (20km west of Misrata) – The Libyan rebels strengthened their territorial hold west of Misrata on Friday, marking one week since securing entrenched positions along a north-south highway roughly 20km from the city center.
The rag-tag group of combatants, the majority lacking any military experience prior to the eruption of violence in Libya three months ago, claim daily increases in the level of security between besieged Misrata and the de facto front line cutting through the town of Dafneya.
“I’m very confident in our control in this area,” said construction worker-turned-revolutionary Abdel Latif al-Suweili, 56. “With every victory, we gain more troops who understand and embrace the cause. But our real confidence is in Allah.”
Along the highway’s intersections with east-west roads running parallel to the Mediterranean, the rebels positioned themselves at makeshift checkpoints built with 4m by 20m shipping containers bolstered on both sides by sand. They sat atop the barricades with FN rifles and AKs, surveying the area westward with binoculars.
Both sides exchanged indiscriminate and sporadic fire throughout the day. The rebels fired anti-aircraft guns, 106mm recoilless rifles and modified helicopter guns, among other weapons – all mounted on the back of pickup trucks.
Forces loyal to embattled Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi responded with rocket shelling. Roughly half a kilometer to the east of Dafneya, at least two rockets landed behind the front lines. Plumes of black smoke drifted up in the air over the area’s wheat fields and olive groves. During incoming fire the rebels yell scattered shouts of "Allah Akhbar".
Qadhafi forces also fired GRAD missiles, with a range of 20km, at undetermined targets on Misrata’s western outskirts periodically throughout the day.
“Its just random fire,” said Suweili. “In the evening, it's more.”
Despite losing ground in recent weeks, Qadhafi’s forces continue to claim casualties. Rebels on the front lines reported one death and 11 injuries on Thursday night. A physician at the Intensive Care Unit at Hikma private clinic, Abdul Kadder Mukhtar, relayed information about a combatant’s death on Thursday night.
“He suffered internal trauma and brain injury,” said Mukhtar. “We performed CPR three times but he did not respond.”
Mukhtar also said two rebels died on Thursday in fighting 35km east of Misrata, along the road to Sirte, Qadhafi’s hometown and a loyalist stronghold.
The rebels are poised to advance in the coming days towards Zlitan, roughly 10km west of Dafneya. They claim to control half the distance to the town, which, according to the rebels, already holds a sizeable revolutionary presence.
“There is coordination. We gave an ultimatum to people in Zlitan to move,” said Suweili. “We will need to resume fighting in three days. But we haven’t officially announced the zero hour.”
The rebels at the front purportedly communicate with Zlitan’s residents by carrying messages by foot at nighttime over the expanse between the two towns.
Reports indicating that Qadhafi is shelling Zlitan – roughly 100km from Tripoli – in order to create tension between the town’s residents and the advancing rebels, cannot be confirmed.
“Qadhafi wants it to look like people in Misrata are fighting with people in Zlitan,” said Suweili.
The roads connecting Misrata and Dafneya are littered with burnt out vehicles, building facades destroyed or flecked with bullet marks, and dead farm animals. Residents of the area have vacated their homes and property due to the persistent clashes and mortar and missile shelling.
NATO said on Friday that its bombing campaign has crippled the government’s ability to attack rebels and has forced Qadhafi into hiding. The alliance continues to strike Qadhafi-held targets in the region west of Misrata, while frequently, according to the rebels, scanning the area. When this happens, fighting temporarily stops.
“When NATO comes,” said 18-year-old Mohamed Abdul Hamid, formerly an employee at his father’s engineering consultancy firm in Misrata, “everything is off.”