In Eastern Libya, Defectors and Volunteers Build Rebel Army

Using seized weapons, they've charged themselves with defending against Qaddafi's attempt to retake their cities

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AJDABIA, Libya -- On Wednesday, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's warplanes bombarded opposition-held Ajdabia, a coastal town 175 km south of Benghazi, the eastern city that has become the unofficial headquarters of anti-Qaddafi forces. That same day, Qaddafi also sent mercenaries to attack the oil-rich town of Brega, 80 km to the southwest, where fighting left 17 dead and, according to some reports, eight more dragged off by mercenaries to an unknown fate. Though fighting between the regime and the opposition has raged openly in Tripoli for the past week, these attacks brought Qaddafi's first overt hostilities against the rebel-controlled east of the country since yellow-hatted mercenaries massacred civilian protesters in Benghazi on February 17th.

Since ousting Qaddafi's forces and seizing control over much of eastern Libya on February 21, civilians and defectors from Qaddafi's army have been gathering in military camps in Benghazi, receiving training from former officers, arming themselves with weapons taken from now-abandoned depots, and preparing for the inevitable counterattack, which began two days ago. That morning, the nascent rebel force mobilized. Many in Ajdabia and elsewhere had received phone calls from friends and family in Brega, which they said was under attack. Newly trained and ready to fight, thousands of these volunteers sped down to help. Ultimately, this irregular force managed to hold the town. Victorious, many returned to the military camp in Ajdabia that evening.

A 26-year-old pharmacist and volunteer in the uprising who gave his name only as Mohammed, sped down the highway toward Ajdabia on Wednesday night. Also in his car was Abdallah Kamal, an Egyptian who participated in the uprising in Cairo's Tahrir Square, as well as myself and another foreign journalist along for the ride. The road's checkpoints were marked with burning tires and manned by young men sporting Kalashnikovs and kaffiyehs wrapped around their heads.

When we arrived, the entrance to Ajdabia was marked by a pair of graceful green arches and, next to that monument, two burned-out cars that had been run off the road. What looked to be about 100 rebel fighters milled around, some in randomly assorted camouflage sets, some in jeans, t-shirts, and leather jackets. Nearly all wore Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, some with ammunition belts draped around their necks. Periodically, machine gun fire rang out. Someone told us, "Don't worry, people are just firing into the air to celebrate." The air was thick with the acrid smell of burning tires. A man in brown robes was kneeling next to an anti-aircraft battery, preparing Molotov cocktails.

Dozens of the volunteer soldiers thronged around us, eager to tell us their stories. All had fought at Brega that day and, having held the city, their mood was high. Some were taxi drivers, some unemployed, some had worked for Qaddafi, only days earlier, as soldiers or police. All said they were ready to fight and determined to win.

"This isn't war, it's a revolution. I am ready to fight tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and the next."

Baraa Zuweyn, a 28-year-old blacksmith from Benghazi, carried a Kalashnikov he had picked up off a dead mercenary -- from Niger, he believes -- in the Benghazi military base on February 17th. "It is a great responsibility," he said. "I've never used a weapon before today. I shot at mercenaries in Brega." He took out the clip and fiddled with it for a moment before clicking it back into place.

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Clare Morgana Gillis is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East. She recently completed her PhD in history at Harvard University.

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