Libya's Rebels Fear Infiltration by Qaddafi Loyalists

Is it paranoia, or could pro-regime elements remain in the ranks of military defectors?

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RAJMA, Libya -- The arms depot next to the village of Rajma sits on a plot of land that is 50 square kilometers, a hill ringed with green fields and sparse forests. Near the site of the still-unexplained explosion that devastated the depot on Friday, trees laid flat against the earth, their roots still fresh and alive. Giant craters marked the ground. Hundreds of anti-aircraft arms still remained under the twisted steel girders that had collapsed from the heat of the fire.

At night, the wrecked depot was truly ghostly. Pieces of sheet metal, which had once formed the walls of the airplane hangar, dangled from what little remained of the structure, waving back and forth and creaking in the high winds. A few stray dogs barked into the desolate landscape, where at least 40 had been killed by the blast and fire.

No one knows exactly how many were killed in the explosion. There's no way to say how many rebel troops, which are organized informally if they're organized at all, were guarding the depot. Some of the dead left only partial remains; many may have left none at all.

Omar Omami, a 20-year-old Rajma local whose entire unit had defected from Qaddafi's army on February 17, tried to understand what had happened. Omami said that professional soldiers, not volunteers, had guarded the munitions depot."There was a shortage of people here, and a lot of disorganization in the security." He said that, since joining with the rebels, he had come to the depot frequently to resupply. He wasn't alone; Omami estimated that between 100 and 150 cars came to the depot everyday, shuttling journalists, soldiers, and curious Libyans to see the site.

Another defected soldier, who used the pseudonym "Al-Agore,"said that on the night of the explosion, soldiers had been manning the main road but had left a side access road unguarded. "The security here is being totally changed since the event, and now it's being guarded on both sides. We're working very hard to secure the base."

The visit ended abruptly when one of the rebels said there was "suspicious activity" on the site and that we had to leave immediately. The soldier shuttled us back to our car, and we had already begun to drive off when one of us noticed that a small back window was broken and my laptop missing.

"Out of the car, out! Out! Get out now!" Omami shouted. After we stopped and did as he'd asked, Omami dived under the car, checking its underside with a flashlight -- looking for bombs. He gave us the okay sign, telling us to drive to the first checkpoint while he called ahead.

At the checkpoint, we waited as eight soldiers heatedly argued what happened. Omami told us, "We know the guys, we know who they are. There are still some people in the army, they want Qaddafi, they don't want the revolution. They don't like it. We know who they are."

They told us to leave, promising to call when they'd found the men they believed to be pro-Qaddafi saboteurs. Ten minutes later the phone rang. "They found one of them," we were told. "They're interrogating him now, and they'll find the other two."

When I got the computer back, the soldiers' conceded that thieves rather than pro-Qaddafi elements had taken it. But, whether they were driven by paranoia or by some knowledge of remaining Qaddafi loyalists, the rebels had seemed ready to believe that betrayers were in their midst. It's not hard to see why. Surely they had all considered the possibility that the many competing explanations for the depot explosion could include sabotage by Qaddafi supporters within the rebel ranks.

General Attia Saleh, who had served in Libya's army for 32 years and is now a member of the Transitional Government's Military Council, insisted to me that "no one in the military, from Masa'ad to Brega, wants Qaddafi."

But not everyone in the rebel leadership, such that it exists, agrees. When asked about the threat of pro-Qaddafi elements lurking among the civilian and military opposition, Mustafa Gheriani, the media coordinator of the National Libyan Council, said "we can't look through the whole population and see what they're thinking. We kind of know who's who. We hope they will see the light with the overseas pressure building. With the state television showing Benghazi under Qaddafi's control, It's a psychological war now in the media, and when the situation gets difficult people don't know what to believe. That's when it gets dangerous."

Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters