Rebel force in eastern Libya faces challenges

BENGHAZI – They have little ammunition, their equipment is old and outdated and their fighters are poorly trained. Even though they boast of tanks, army bases and airports in eastern Libya, rebels still face many challenges before they can make any real move on Moammar Gadhafi’s stronghold in Tripoli, hundreds of miles to the west.

Analysts believe the standoff between forces loyal to Gadhafi and rebels backed by army troops who have defected would likely be settled on the streets. But they also said they could not rule out that a hurriedly assembled force from the east would move out to seize Tripoli.

“It will take people power to unseat Gadhafi,” said Peter Felstead, editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly.

Leaders of the eastern rebellion said they were trying to put together a force made up of army troops and volunteers with basic military training and that they already have more than 5,000 volunteers. The plan, they explained, was to march on Tripoli through the desert, skirting big loyalist towns along the way like Sirte, and to glean information from Tripoli on the easiest route into the city.

Already, signs are growing that the roughly 470-mile march to Tripoli to oust Gadhafi or an effort to consolidate defenses in the east in the face of a possible attack by forces loyal to the Libyan leader would receive the blessing or even the support of the West.

The European Union said Monday it was discussing the possibility of creating a no-fly zone over Libya and the Pentagon said it was repositioning some armed forces to near Libya in case they were needed, but it did not say what they might be needed for. The U.S. has a regular military presence in the Mediterranean and two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf area.

French planes were headed for the eastern city of Benghazi with doctors, nurses, medicine and medical equipment. “It will be the beginning of a massive operation of humanitarian support for the populations of liberated territories,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on RTL radio. “(France is studying) all the options to make Col. Gadhafi understand that he should go.”

Western support could be crucial if the rebel-held east decides to end the stalemate with Libya’s Gadhafi and send a force west to capture Tripoli and topple his 41-year-old regime.

“We asked all the military people to come back to work,” said Ali Idris, a leading member of the city of Bayda’s council in eastern Libya. “The problem is that Tripoli is heavily defended so we are trying to contact people there to figure out how to get into Tripoli.”

At one of two military bases at Shahhat near Bayda, a Libyan army officer said an effort is being made to gather all the available weapons in the base and on the streets to use to defend areas under rebel control.

“I do not know how many troops there are,” said Maj. Salem Abdel-Mula, explaining many had fled, but there had also been civilian volunteers. “Maybe some 800 of them have joined us.”

“Food, medicine, weapons – anything would help,” he said of possible Western aid. The unshaven officer was dressed in a blue jumpsuit and parka and didn’t carry any obvious marks of rank.

“We have orders to move these tanks to other bases,” said Sgt. Maj. Salah Adam, who wore mismatched khakis as he gestured at the small, Russian-made tanks dating from the 1980s. He said the base has 36 tanks, of which 12 will be deployed around Bayda.

“We are not trying to go to war, but if the order comes, we will be ready to go to Tripoli,” he said.