Libya: Doubt over city's loyalty puts brake on rebel advance

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"This is the red line," said rebel Libyan fighter Adl Mustafa on the western front line of Dafniya - the border of control between the municipalities of Misrata and Zlitan. "When we see Gaddafi fighters advancing we attack, but for the moment our orders are to stand firm."

The fighters say they are keen to start the offensive about 30 miles west to Zlitan, but not without proof that the people there support the revolution.

"We are waiting for the rebel forces to advance from Zlitan," said Ibrahim Bait el Mal, the spokesman for the Misrata military forces.

"We have been in touch with tribal leaders who carry weight in Zlitan and there is co-ordination in that respect."

Within the past few days up to 80 Zlitan men arrived in Misrata, smuggled in lorries.

"They came to receive training, and to join the thuwar (fighters] in Misrata in an attack to take their town from Gaddafi," said Salah Mabrook, 31. "Some of them know how to use guns, some do not.

"Soon they will be ready to go forward with the Misrata troops," said Mr Mabrook, who fights with the Shaheed, or martyr, brigade on the western front. "I think in three to four days we will have good news."

The strategy, say the rebels, is two-pronged: Zlitan fighters receiving training in Misrata will join the rebel troops' advance west, using their knowledge of the people and the area to help.

At the same time, the rebels hope, residents of Zlitan will rise up against the Gaddafi troops.

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"We plan to sandwich them," said Mustafa, one of the fighters.

Analyst and former rebel fighter Dr Swahib Mohamed said: "Attacking Zlitan without the help of locals is extremely dangerous.

"The Misrata rebels would not know who supported who, they don't know the back roads - this is vital for the gang warfare they are fighting."

The biggest concern that many fighters admit to is the question of where Zlitan's true loyalties lie among a population of around 280,000. Misrata and Zlitan are traditional local rivals, in a country where that still means more than football matches.

"We need to know that the people there are with us; we have given them some arms - Kalashnikov and FN rifles. We need to see what they do with these before we give them more. There are sensitive relations between the people here and there, and there is a chance they could use the guns against us," said Dr Mohamed.

"Unless we feel the situation there is changing, we can't go to Zlitan," said Abu Bakr, 30, a fighter who left his teaching job in Huddersfield to fight in the revolution.

Zlitan is a crucial battleground if they are to march on Tripoli."We cannot go leave it in the hands of Gaddafi and go around it," said Mr Bakr. "It would leave Misrata open to attack."

"It is vital that Zlitan falls to us; because if it doesn't, there is no Tripoli option," added Dr Mohamed.

Ultimately, the rebels say, they want to march the warpath to Tripoli. "The morale of the fighters is getting higher and higher. We are determined to finish the job," said Majdi, 35, who was returning from the front to reload his weapon.

"Tripoli is our target, we want to go there. We think that we are ready for this, especially with Nato bombing to help us," said Mr Mabrook.

The enthusiasm is tempered by the enormity of challenges that lie ahead in the 125 miles to the capital. "After Zlitan there is Khoms. This will be very difficult fighting," said Mr Mabrook.

Mr Bakr fought on the eastern front line of Brega before coming to Misrata, and so has experience of war in open expanses. He is more cautious; making battle plans for Khoms is jumping the gun he says.

Of major concern is the strength of the Gaddafi forces on the western front: if they are strong, advancing west could spread rebel troops too thinly. "It is not clear how many troops he has there. If we get inside Zlitan, we could lose the advantage we had here."

Mr Mal told journalists on Thursday that he believed Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi's troops on the western front included members of his elite special brigade Katiba 42. The figure of 2,000 men was bandied about, but there was little way of confirming it.

The deployment of British Apache, and French Tiger and Gazelle attack helicopters, could tip the balance for the battle at Dafniya - which has maintained a robust stalemate for three weeks - in the rebel's favour, the fighters say.

"Most of the guys think that the helicopters will be more helpful or effective against how the Gaddafi men are fighting now. They try to shell us and then hide; helicopters will find it easier to spot them."

They hope too that helicopters will crush the morale of Gaddafi troops. It is, they say, just a question of time.

"We feel that the Gaddafi forces are getting to their lowest level," Mr Bakr said. "We keep capturing them."

Ultimately, he believes, the outcome depends on the reaction of the people in Zlitan and Khoms.

He said: "If it is like in the east, with people supporting the rebels' cause, we will join them and we will go to Tripoli.

"Maybe we will even lead the battle, as we now have more experience, but first we need to see changes by the people on the ground."

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