Libyan rebels advancing from the east along the Mediterranean coast, having taken the oil refinery city of Ras Lanuf on Saturday in fierce fighting, have advanced further west and taken the small town of Ben Jawad. They appear to have succeeded in shooting down a fighter-jet sent against Ras Lanuf by besieged dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s rump air force, using the city’s anti-aircraft batteries, which they had captured.
The partisans of the liberation movement seem determined to go further and try to take the city of Sirt (Sirte, Surt) (pop. 135,000). The advantage here is that if they can conquer Sirt, they can link up with rebels who control Misurata (Misrata) (pop. 600,000), and so will control everything west of Tripoli. Since the western, working-class suburbs of Tripoli are not under control of the government, either, Qaddafi would be reduced to dominating only downtown Tripoli and some sparsely populated towns in the west.
The BBC is reporting heavy gunfire in Tripoli on Saturday night, suggesting that rebel forces are mounting attacks there on pro-Qaddafi positions.
A difficulty is that much of the population of Sirt supports Qaddafi. A BBC interview with an Indian English teacher there describes large houses and highly literate people who benefited from the old regime, which, e.g., sited international conferences there.
Likewise, the rebels in Misurata face raids by pro-Qaddafi units from Tripoli, though these have so far been consistently pushed back out. Giving Misurata a supply line and a contingent of reinforcements from the east would be a major benefit of reducing Sirt, from the rebels’ point of view.
It appears that the push to the west is being pursued by army defectors and small-town youth who are functioning as ‘men on the spot’ rather than being directed by a central rebel military command from Benghazi. And, indeed, there are reports that the Benghazi leaders are divided over whether such a rapid push west at this point is advisable. This analysis suggests that Qaddafi’s forces were weak and lacking heart in Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, which appear to have fallen relatively easily to enthusiastic rebels.
Partisans in the oil town of Zawiya to the west of the capital fought off two massive attacks on the city by Qaddafi military units, who deployed tanks and rocket-propelled brigades but were forced to withdraw when they lost dozens of fighters, according to Arabic wire services. This outcome indicates that the rebel forces holding the city have heavy artillery and tanks, a conclusion supported by BBC reporting. The difficult Tripoli is having in reducing Zawiya, even if it proves temporary, again indicates the weakness of the pro-Qaddafi military. Zawiya is cut off from reinforcements and supplies from the east, since it is on the other side of Tripoli, so the city’s self-defense is indigenous.
Aljazeera English reports on the battle of Zawiya and the fall of Ras Lanuf to the rebels.
The big battles this weekend have been over oil cities, since both sides in the civil war are seeking resources to pursue the fight.