A NATO airstrike is reported to have killed 13 rebels and civilians on the outskirts of the oil port city of Brega on Saturday. Four civilians, including an ambulance driver and three medical students from Benghazi, were killed, the Times of London reports. Their deaths underscore the difficulties faced by Western nations and the rebels in using airstrikes against the forces of Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi, and even suggest that the crisis in Libya will be resolved by political, rather than military, means.
Gaddafi’s forces are now using similar equipment as the rebels, pickup trucks with machine guns or rockets mounted in the back—with the result that it is increasingly difficult for combatants to distinguish one group from the other. The strike occurred on Friday night as the rebels continued in their efforts to retake Brega. Gaddafi forces with superior artillery crews were positioned in the desert with a view of the road.
According to the New York Times, one rebel fighter who was wounded in the attack said that, for unknown reasons, another rebel fighter had fired into the air moments before the strike:
At Benghazi’s hospital, Brahim Fahim al-Oraybey, a 19-year-old rebel fighter, said he had been wounded in the blast. His right leg was amputated below the knee, and he was badly burned across his face, back, shoulders and hands.
He said there had been six vehicles, including an ambulance, in front of him in a convoy when the explosion struck. He had been riding in a white pickup with a machine gun mounted on the back, a favorite combat configuration of both the rebels and Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. He said he saw a local shepherd who lost both arms in the blast, but his fate was not clear.
Around the scene of the airstrikes, rebel fighters speculated that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces had infiltrated the rebel lines and fired at the planes, or that celebrating rebels shooting guns into the air had drawn the allied fire.
Here on the eastern front and in the besieged western city of Misurata, rebel fighters said Saturday that they were anxious about what they perceived as a slowdown in the airstrikes, enabling Colonel Qaddafi to hold on as his forces regroup and advance.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels said that they are aware of the report about a rebel firing into the air and are investigating. According to NATO, 148 airstrikes had been conducted in the previous 24 hours of the strike. While the airstrikes have destroyed some of Gaddafi’s tanks and heavy weapons, the military has “evidently held back some of its military equipment in the relatively dense urban area, where the NATO forces cannot strike without the risk of civilian casualties.”
In view of the “lack of discipline, experience and tactics” among the rebels and the US’s announcement this weekend that it will no longer be conducting bombing raids (and its earlier decision that it will not send group troops into Libya), the Guardian says that the conflict in Libya has descended into a stalemate:
On the rebel side, a familiar scenario has been played out repeatedly as their poorly armed and ill-disciplined fighters have advanced chaotically to occupy towns briefly vacated by Gaddafi’s troops, only to be driven back through scores of miles of desert at the first salvo of rocket or tank fire despite the bravado of their rhetoric.
On Gaddafi’s side, his armour and aircraft harried by coalition jets, the momentum similarly has faded since his forces were driven back from the edges of Benghazi by the entry of international forces into the conflict.
…what has begun to emerge is what many feared in the first place – a stalemate, defined by two sides playing a kind of lethal tag in the desert over deserted oil towns.
What if the result of the coalition’s mission is that Gaddafi remains in power, and the rebels remain rebels?
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Photo of Libyan rebel fighters perform the ritual noon prayer in Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011 by شبكة برق | B.R.Q.