Libya rebels regroup but battle exposes weakness

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Libyan rebel fighters prepared for a new offensive south of Tripoli but tactical errors raised new questions about whether they will be able to march on the capital.

Western states are frustrated by a five-month rebel campaign that — despite support from NATO warplanes — has failed to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and some governments are now looking instead to talks as a way out of the conflict.

Rebel commanders in the village of Al-Qawalish, about 100 km (60 miles) from Tripoli, said they were massing their forces and preparing to advance east towards the town of Garyan, which controls access to the main highway into the capital, Reuters reports.

But only a day earlier, the handful of rebels defending Al-Qawalish ran out of ammunition and fled when forces loyal to Gaddafi staged a surprise attack. The rebels took back the village before nightfall, with the loss of seven men.
“We came yesterday and we stayed here and we said we are not moving until the place is secure,” said one rebel fighter who was manning a machine gun and gave his name as Tommy. “This mistake is not going to happen again. We’re not going home.”

The fighting exposed the limitations of a rebel force which lacks a clear command structure and relies on civilian volunteers who are committed to bringing down Gaddafi but have little or no military training..

The company is the biggest foreign investor in Libya’s energy sector and has been in the country since the 1950s. It angered officials in Tripoli by pulling out its staff when the rebellion started and by establishing ties with the rebels.

Speaking on a visit to Brussels on Wednesday, Mahmoud Jebril, a senior member of the rebel National Transitional Council, dismissed the prospects for a deal.
“All this talk about negotiations taking place between the regime and the … (rebel council) are totally false claims,” Jebril told reporters in Brussels.
“There were no negotiations taking place in the past and there are no negotiations taking place right now. There are ideas flying in the air from one capital to another, but no coherent, comprehensive initiative has so far (been) put on the table.”

Gaddafi says he has the support of the majority of the ibyan people and that the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has called the NATO campaign an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya’s plentiful oil.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday and told him he supported efforts to find a political solution.

But according to a White House official, Obama stressed that a condition for U.S. backing was that Gaddafi step aside.

Western powers, Arab governments and representatives of the Libya rebels are to meet in Istanbul in Friday for a session of the “contact group” which has been coordinating efforts to push Gaddafi from power.

China said it would skip the meeting because the way the group operated needed “further study.” Beijing has established contacts with the rebels but it has condemned NATO air strikes and urged a compromise deal between the opposing sides.