A few miles past the west gate of Ashdabiya, the crucial crossroads town about 100 miles west of the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi there is a grim reminder that war kills from every direction. It’s the scene of that friendly fire tragedy that happened late Friday night in which 13 rebel fighters were obliterated by one of our allied aircraft. The charred remains of several vehicles are just twisted wrecks standing guard over newly dug graves fifty feet from the road. The road is gouged as if with a giant pick axe and it is covered with a thick layer of carbon from the super-heated explosions of the precision missiles that sadly wasted those cars; but which have also saved the liberated parts of the country those drivers were fighting for by wasting 25% of Gaddafi’s entire armored corps so far. He can’t win now. That main coastal road connecting this country is a highway of death for anything armored.
Prevented by death from above from using tanks, this has become something approximating a fair fight; a street fight between the Gaddafi infantry and the Libyan rebel army such as it is. Don’t get me wrong; some of that insurgent force is not bad. There is a tiny corps of defectors, at most 1,000 trained veterans of the Libyan army that is currently engaging the main Gaddafi formation beyond the town of Brega, 25 miles west on the road to Gaddafi’s strongest point on the road, the fortress of Al Gayla.
But most of the freedom fighters are a rag tag Hodge Podge of civilians that has less discipline, training, experience and organization than a Chicago street gang.
These are hapless, clueless heroes; the crew frequently seen lately retreating at the first shot. They can’t even tell the difference between incoming or outgoing fire; they shoot with little or no idea of what they are aiming at; and they are as dangerous to themselves or to civilians in the area as they are to Gaddafi’s forces.
Driving through the old section of Brega early Sunday morning I was surprised at how lightly manned the road was; where was the Rebel army? Later I learned that they usually show up for work after breakfast in Benghazi. Then they call it a day in time to get home for the evening meal.
After a series of rolling hills we could see the University of Brega on the next rise. There was a small group of rebel fighters crouched by the side of the road, maybe four of them, lightly armed with AK-47’s and an RPG. “Gaddafi! Gaddafi!” they said urgently pointing toward the university. Because they tend to see Gaddafi soldiers under every tree, I discounted their shouted warnings. We got out of our vehicles and I started walking up the slight rise toward the university buildings, my longtime cameraman producer and friend Greg Hart walking alongside.
Then the first shot whistled over my head.
What followed was a cacophony of firing from the Gaddafi forces holed up at the crossroads ahead. They started firing at us with everything from RPG’s to heavy machine guns. The shots cut through the air with that zinging sound that terrifies the soul. The worst part came when enemy mortar rounds started landing behind us. Retreat then had to go through that zone already bracketed by their firing.
This column is already getting too long. But after I take a nap (I haven’t slept since Saturday morning) I’ll fill you in on the withdrawal from that exposed point; the arrival of a heavy column of rebel fighters; their counter-attack and their ultimate retreat down the highway back toward Ashdabiya. I’ll also tell you about the bravest crew any correspondent has ever been blessed to work alongside. It was a wicked intense day.