Libyan militias prepare to join forces before assault on Tripoli

If Sirte falls, then it paves the way for the battle for Tripoli. The Guardian: Groups of revolutionaries are starting to move towards western Libya in an attempt to link up with opposition militias near Tripoli, setting the stage for a final assault on the capital – perhaps within weeks.

The groups are heavily armed with military weapons, which have been looted from every army base and police headquarters east of the central oil town of Ras Lusafa. They have fought skirmishes with pro-regime forces near the Gaddafi family stronghold of Sirte, but have so far avoided intensive clashes.

Organisers in Benghazi said the groups were mostly youths and former security forces who defected during the battles that led to the fall of the city.

Ramadan Faitoura, a member of the newly formed interim government in Libya’s second city, said the groups were not part of an official push westward, although they have the support of the nascent leadership.

“We have a lot of weapons, and they have a lot of motivation,” he said. “My job is to make the connections.”

There appear to be plenty of volunteers along the way. In the town of Adjbadiya, 100 miles south of Benghazi, youths talked enthusiastically about travelling to the capital if asked to do so.

“There is nothing for us here at all,” said Khaled Ahmed in the town’s central square. “This whole place has been forgotten about for 42 years.”

A crowd quickly gathered around him, all shouting the same demands. “Gaddafi gave us nothing,” one said. ” He stole everything and the people live like this.”

“I’ll go to Tripoli tomorrow,” said another.

Like much else in this 10-day-old revolution, firm plans to take the capital have not moved past the drawing board. However, on the streets of the country’s most rebellious city there is a growing restlessness that the dramatic ousting of Gaddafi loyalists last weekend has not been met by similar success in the capital.

“That’s why the youths are going there,” he said. “They are not being told what to do and we can’t stop them. They have not been able to enter [the city of] Sirte and have to move a long way to the south to avoid the Gaddafi forces. It’s the long way there.”

Some groups have been given access to the many tonnes of stolen weapons, but the huge arsenals on open display early last week are being kept in reserve in the unlikely event of a counter-assault by Gaddafi loyalists.

The question of what to do with the weapons will be determined by a national council, which was announced today , and which has been given the task of putting a political face on the revolution. Gaddafi’s former justice minister, Mustafa Mohamed Abud Ajleil, will run the national council and a number of the dictator’s former loyalist generals will be given prominent roles.

“We want to see if we can co-ordinate between municipal councils from east and west to form an organising body,” said Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer involved in the Benghazi coalition.

“One of the aims of the body is to help the resistance in Tripoli through military and other means,” she said.

Sirte, halfway along the coastal road to Tripoli, looms as a major obstacle for anyone travelling west from Benghazi. Regime checkpoints have been set up on the outskirts of the city and attempts by opposition groups to seize control have so far been unsuccessful.

“It has become more of a stronghold for Gaddafi than the capital,” said a member of the organising committee, which has set up in Benghazi’s court house. “Sirte could be a key to the success of all this. If it falls, there is no stopping people on the way to Tripoli.”

Sirte is a Gaddafi family stronghold that continues to enjoy tribal loyalty. However opposition groups believe that could wane if enough members of the area’s dominant tribe become convinced that Gaddafi’s attempt to remain in control is a lost cause.

Some military officers and security chiefs have defected to the opposition there, but not in nearly the same numbers as their counterparts in the east, which is now totally under opposition control.

Evacuations of foreign nationals continued in Benghazi today , with around 300 people expected to board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland, which docked mid-afternoon after an earlier run to Malta.

The warship had earlier taken 207 people to Malta and could return for a third time to collect the estimated 300 Britons left behind.

Most remaining foreigners are employed in Libya’s oil industry, which has been shut down by opposition groups, who seized refineries, rigs and wells as Gaddafi forces retreated westwards.

Some members of the national council suggested that oil production would soon be allowed to start again.

One oil worker, Canadian John Race, said he and his colleagues had turned out the lights at their desert field 400 miles south of Benghazi in order to avoid attracting attention as news of last weekend’s fighting spread. “Nothing came our way though,” he said before boarding the Cumberland. “There was no trouble.”

High seas caused by winter storms continue to foil alternative attempts to reach Tripoli, or rebel-held towns in the west, such as Musrati, through the Gulf of Sirte.

One fisherman in Benghazi’s port said two fishing boats had been sunk by missiles fired from the shore near Sirte during the past week. He also displayed a video of a scud missile on the back of a large lorry that had been seized by rebels.

A former military officer said there three other scuds had been seized – all of them up to 20 years old – and were being kept as part of a rebel armoury.

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