When tanks rumbled westwards, Libya’s rebels were for once struck by inspiration rather than fear as they watched heavy armour making its way to the front line.
For weeks the ragtag rebel force, mostly civilians with little or no military training, has been outgunned and outflanked by Muammer Gaddafi’s superior and better equipped troops. For the first time since the conflict erupted, opposition tanks had moved to the front.
But disaster struck on Thursday when Nato jets mistakenly unleashed their bombs on the rebels’ hardware – the second friendly fire incident in a week. Several tanks were destroyed, at least four people killed and the world was given its clearest example of the quagmire that is emerging in Libya.
On Sunday, rebel fighters were battling to retain control of Ajdabiya as forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi attacked for a second day the strategic eastern town – the last line of defence for Benghazi, the rebel capital. While his troops advanced east, Col Gaddafi confidently toured a school in Tripoli on Saturday, pumping his fists as supporters cheered.
When the international community stepped in to support the opposition in March, it found itself dealing with an unknown quantity that had sprung up virtually spontaneously, with few expecting that protests that began in mid-February would turn into a full-blown conflict. Three weeks into the international military campaign, the conflict is turning into a stalemate.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general, said at the weekend that there was “no military solution” to the conflict.
And Washington’s decision to pull its jet fighters and bombers out of Libya has caused tension in Nato ranks amid concerns over the effectiveness of the military mission without the US in the lead.
It has also become clear the rebels are too weak and disorganised to take advantage of Nato air power. Opposition officials, who have no experience in politics or leading such a campaign, acknowledge they are learning as they go along.
After last week’s friendly fire incident, rebels and Nato contradicted each other about whether the rebels had informed the alliance of the movement of the convoy, which included 12 old Soviet-made T-55 tanks and six newer T-72 tanks captured from pro-Gaddafi forces. “Now we face Gaddafi’s forces and Nato strikes,” said Idris Abdulkarim, a rebel fighter.
The picture is muddied by an environment where information is vague and rumours and conspiracies swirl. Army defectors have tried to instil discipline into the rebels, but the size and strength of their force remain unknown. General Abdul Fatah Younis, the rebels’ army chief, said he had about 400 tanks, but added many had been in storage for years.
There has also been confusion on the rebel military’s leadership. Khalifa Hefta, an officer who served in Libya’s war with Chad in the 1980s before spending more than 20 years in exile, was initially named as being in charge, alongside Gen Younis, a former interior minister and a veteran Gaddafi ally. But Mr Hefta now seems to have been sidelined with little explanation.
In spite of the friendly fire incidents, rebels still look to air strikes to help close the vast military gap between them and the regime, with calls for France and the US to take back the leadership from Nato. US officials, however, are sceptical that air power can turn the tide alone and have a low opinion of the rebels’ effectiveness.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, estimated only 1,000 of the rebels had military training, while both the west and Libyans have ruled out deployment of foreign ground forces amid fears it would lead to another Iraq or Afghanistan.