Libya: Rebel brigade carry memory of leader's dead brother to frontline

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IBRAHIM Helbus has more reason than most for wishing Nato sends attack helicopters to Libya. His brother Hamid was killed by Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi's forces earlier this year in the desperate rebel defence of Misrata. Now Ibrahim wants payback.

And he is well-equipped to deliver - Ibrahim is commander of Misrata's elite unit, the Helbus Katiba (brigade), formed and named after his late brother but known by its men as Black Brigade, after the colour of its pick-up trucks.

We meet at the brigade's observation point on the frontline east of the town. From the top of a derrick built to drill for water before the war, an observer stares out across two miles of flat grassland to a line of trees where Col Gaddafi's forces are dug in.

"We are strong, we are ready," says the bearded commander, cupping his hands to light a cigarette against the fierce wind that blows sand in from the Sahara. "We see a target, we hit it."

The cigarette, he jokes, is a sign that he is not a jihadist. "Al-Qaeda don't smoke," he says. "You see I am not al-Qaeda."

What he is, is ready. The Black Brigade comprises truck drivers and architects, oil engineers and medics, all drawn together by the power of the two brothers' personalities.

They formed through social connections to defend districts of Misrata. The Black Brigade earned its spurs by fighting off the elite Libyan 32nd Brigade in a battle that spared the city's Benghazi street from the wholesale destruction that ravaged nearby Tripoli Street.

Back then, the brigade was no more than a band of friends - to join, recruits had to know at least one existing member.

No shoulder flashes or recognition badges were needed back then. Things have changed. The brigade has equipped itself with the familiar rebel array of battered pick-up trucks, each mounted with an anti-aircraft gun or missile launcher.

The black paint scheme was devised since both armies use white pick-up trucks, and in the frenetic advance that pushed Col Gaddafi's forces out of Misrata last month, Ibrahim wanted his men to avoid being hit by friendly fire.

If and when Royal Air Force Apaches go into action, Ibrahim hopes they will blast a path through which his men will pour, heading east to capture the town of Tarhuga, tantalisingly hidden beyond the far treeline.

"We get the order from Nato and we go through, we will take Tarhuga in two hours," said section commander Mustafa Karibi.

Morale is high among Black Brigade members, and there is evidence of military training, though they will not say from whom, in the placement of their vehicles and gun positions, dug in around the observation point.They are sure also that the regime soldiers facing them are on their last legs.

The Black Brigade launches regular raids behind the lines, coming back with terrified prisoners, mostly conscripts with a sprinkling of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa.

"They are not brave, they are frightened. They use drugs to make them fight," says brigade member Khalid Alogab. Before the war, Alogab installed air conditioning for foreign oil companies.

Now he hopes for a swift end to Col Gaddafi and a return to work. "I worked with everyone, British, Americans, Canadians, I want to welcome them back.".