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Pro-Gaddafi forces ambushed rebels advancing towards the capital Tripoli yesterday and recaptured lost territory, undermining US intelligence claims that the rebels are gaining the upper hand in the fighting.
Rebel units, backed by NATO airstrikes, had seized the village of Al-Qawalish and were hoping to use it as a springboard to take Garyan, a town on the main road to Tripoli 60 miles to the north. But a news agency reported one rebel fighter as saying “we were moving forward when suddenly we were ambushed.” Truckloads of rebel militiamen drove fast out of Al-Qawalish as shells landed, one of the fighters shouting: “Go! Go! It is not safe here!”
The rebels have repeatedly made exaggerated claims of military success in the past, while in practice relying on NATO air support to clear the way for their advance. Since NATO took command of the air war on March 31 its aircraft have carried out 14,931 sorties including 5,623 in which they made attacks on pro-Gaddafi forces. Despite this the rebels were at first barely able to hold their own and have made only limited advances.
The French and British governments miscalculated the the resilience of the Gaddafi regime when they started the air war against it three months ago. They at first believed that it would rapidly disintegrate, but instead there was a stalemate. US intelligence is now saying that pro-Gaddafi forces are increasing short of fuel, money and their morale is low, but the claim may be geared to maintaining ebbing support in NATO for a military solution.
Military victory remains the objective of the rebels who deny that any negotiations are taking with Col Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Reacting to a French government suggestion that a political solution is taking shape, Mahmoud Jebril, a senior member of the rebels’ Transitional National Council (TNC), said “all this talk about negotiations taking place between the regime and the TNC are totally false.”
The rebels’ advantage in the propaganda war may be damaged by Human Rights Watch report that in four towns In the Nafusa mountains south west of Tripoli captured by them in the last month they have looted hospitals, houses and shops as well as burning some homes. Individuals have been beaten for supporting the government. In all the towns many residents have fled, fearful of being targeted for retaliation or because of the fighting.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq