Libyans entered the Muslim holy month of Ramadan yesterday with no let-up in the five-month conflict as Muammar Gaddafi sought to foment divisions within a rebellion threatening him on several fronts.
Several explosions rocked the capital, Tripoli, overnight and again yesterday as the NATO coalition vowed to press on with a U.N.-backed bombing campaign which is meant to protect civilians but is also supporting rebels trying to oust Gaddafi.
Holding firm despite growing international isolation and crippling financial sanctions, Gaddafi sought to play on potential divisions by calling on tribes and soldiers in rebel-controlled areas to rise up and free their cities.
But in the eastern stronghold of Benghazi, businesses have pledged to keep sending food and supplies to the front line to sustain a rebellion that now controls about half the country but has struggled to make a significant breakthrough in weeks.
Fayza, a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf, said after shopping with her husband in Benghazi: “The prices have gone up and there is a bit of cost cutting because of the delayed salaries, but despite that we are happy. This Ramadan feels different, there is freedom this time. We miss the people we have lost, but our hope is freedom.”
After a torrid week in their eastern bastion, where they had to fight off a pocket of Gaddafi loyalists and saw their military commander assassinated, apparently by allied gunmen, the Western-backed rebels have sought to put divisions behind them and retake the initiative.
The insurgents advanced on Tiji, the last government stronghold in the Western Mountains, Zlitan, 160 km (100 miles) east of Tripoli, and Brega, a key oil town protected by some 3,000 heavily armed Gaddafi forces.
Despite controlling vast swathes of territory and winning broadening international recognition, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in frozen funds, splits within the anti-Gaddafi camp are raising concerns over instability and sustained trouble even if the rebels end his 41-year rule.
Talks to end the conflict have slipped into the background after a United Nations envoy came and went last week without having made any visible progress with either side.
However, Venezuela’s foreign minister is due to receive a Gaddafi envoy later on Monday. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has been a vocal critic of the NATO bombing campaign and previously proposed talks between the warring sides.
In a sign of the mounting toll of the conflict, 25 men were apparently asphyxiated by motor fumes and died in a small boat crammed full of nearly 300 African migrants which arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa yesterday.
Thousands of people, many of them migrants from sub-Saharan Africa fleeing turmoil across North Africa, not just Libya, have sailed to Italy in rickety boats in recent months.
The U.N. refugee agency has said one in 10 migrants fleeing conflict in Libya by sea is likely to drown or die from hunger or exhaustion in appalling conditions during the crossing.
The high cost and lack of food, coupled with soaring temperatures and fears over loved ones on the front line will hang over this year’s Ramadan, when families and friends typically gather to break their fast.
Amid religious music marking the start of Ramadan, Libyan state television broadcast a statement by Defence Minister Abubakr Yunus Jaber urging members of the army who joined rebels in the east to rejoin the fold and “liberate Benghazi”.
“We know that you are forced to do things that are against your principles and the traditions of the Libyan people … such deeds are covered by the general pardon (issued by Gaddafi).”
Gaddafi on Sunday also urged members of the Warfalla tribe, one of Libya’s largest, to march peacefully toward the rebel stronghold of Misrata and “liberate” the city.
Benghazi has been awash with speculation over the killing last week of General Abdel Fattah Younes, a former Gaddafi security minister who defected to the rebels early in the war.
Some suspect his execution was ordered by rebel leaders for treason, many say he was killed by Gaddafi spies, and others suggest a rebel splinter group had acted alone.
Either way, the killing was an embarrassment for the rebels and their Western backers, and analysts said it pointed to at best the rebel’s loose grip on territory they hold but may also herald divisions and chaos even if Gaddafi was removed.
In an apparent effort to avert a feud, rebels named Suleiman al-Obeidi, a member of Younes’ tribe, as acting military chief.
Libya’s conflict, which some had hoped might be over in weeks once NATO started bombing Gaddafi targets in March, has dragged on into Ramadan, sapping the energy of fighters on the ground and potentially the enthusiasm of their foreign backers.
Aside from sporadic gunfire, there was little action on the battlefield in the west on Monday. Rebel fighters had pulled about 8 km (5 miles) back from Tiji due to a sandstorm, and were cleaning their guns as they sought shelter from the baking sun.
Despite fighting and fasting in the heat, a 33-year-old fighter called Sagher said he relished the challenge.
“If I die fighting Gaddafi I would rather be a martyr who is fasting. It would be a far better martyrdom because I am observing Ramadan,” he said, the remains of a camel eaten the night before lying nearby.
A spokesman for the rebels in Ajdabiya said they had pushed Gaddafi’s heavy weapons out of reach of their forces around Brega but the rebels were not in control of the oil town.
“Today, first day of Ramadan, there were some clashes but using light weapons, there are no martyrs,” he said.
Rebels say the push on Brega has been slowed by hundreds of thousands of mines laid by Gaddafi’s forces.