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Libyan defectors

July 8, 2011

Formed by defectors from the Libyan army, the Western mountains' first National Army battalion is the most experienced group among opposition rebels fighting at the frontline close to Tripoli.

More and more defectors are joining the rebel ranksImage: DW

"We will capture and judge all those responsible for war crimes when we get to Tripoli. And we will be implacable."

Such was the advice of rebel military official, Abdullah al Mehdi, to "all those Libyan soldiers who have not yet defected." A colonel with the Libyan air force until last February, Mehdi was presiding over an unprecedented event in Zintan: the graduation of the first battalion of soldiers based in Libya's Western mountains as part of the newly created National Army.

The austere ceremony was held in the courtyard of Zintan's former school. The green square concrete building was turned into a prison run by the rebel council and, today, it's the headquarters of the National Army in the Nafusa mountains.

"Among the 350 soldiers who deserted the region, 70 re-graduated again this afternoon," Abdulla al Mehdi told Deutsche Welle. The rebel leader added that their training had been fast "because everyone already had military training."

Former Libyan Air Force technician, Mohamed Ali Abusah, was among the 70 chosen.

"I defected at the very beginning of the revolution. It's much easier in the mountains because there is less pressure than in cities like Tripoli or Zawiya," the 47-year-old graduate told Deutsche Welle. He said he would remain as a soldier in the new Libyan army even when the war is over. "I've been a soldier for my whole life, there is nothing else I can do," he added.

Nafusa mountain range extends along 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Tunisian border to the foothills south of Tripoli. Since the border crossing between the two countries fell into rebel hands, opposition fighters have managed to get supplies of all kinds as well as new volunteers willing to join the fight.

rebel soldiers
Many of the Western mountains rebels are poorly trained and equippedImage: DW

Hamza Hamad is yet another of the soldiers in the new battalion. He is 25 and didn't have much military experience when the uprising against Gadhafi began in February.

"We are struggling to be in Tripoli before Ramadan next August, otherwise everything will painfully go on until September, and even onwards," the young soldier told Deutsche Welle.

With the fronts in Brega and Misrata, (east and west Libya) in a stalemate, the Western mountains' front remains the closest frontline to Tripoli. Today there's only a 70-kilometer-strip of flat land between the rebels in the desert location of Bir Ghanoum and Moammar Gadhafi's residence.

Loyal to Gadhafi

The Berber village of Yefren has been one of the towns most severely affected by the ongoing war. The local hospital, its wall scarred by bullet holes, treats rebels wounded at the front. However, the only chain-locked room hosts two soldiers who did not defect from Gadhafi's army.

Abdul, who didn't want to reveal his last name for fear of reprisals against his family in his native Sorma, said he was captured by rebel troops after being shot in his right leg:

"We were told we were fighting foreign mercenaries - Algerians, Chadians, Ethiopians - and also al-Qaeda terrorists. But then we realized they were all Libyans like us… Why didn't I defect? First we had no real information about our enemy. Besides, those who tried to defect got trapped between Ghadafi's troops on the frontline and the forces holding the positions in the rearguard."

He added he had already spent 25 days at the hospital and that he was being well-treated by both rebels and the medical staff.

Back in Zintan, the 70 newly graduated soldiers break ranks and head for their barracks to rest. All of them are unhappy about having to fight against their former comrades. But there are conflicting opinions about whether it is too late to accept new defections. In a few days it will be five months since the Libyan war started.

Some defectors are fearful of reprisalsImage: DW

One soldier, Abdul Hamid Bashir, thinks defectors are not acceptable at this point.

"Many of them will strive to join our ranks when they realise they've lost the war but it's too late, too many atrocities have been committed already," he told Deutsche Welle.

However, Ahmed Dueb, also an "early defector," disagrees.

"Even if it takes 10 months for them to defect, we should receive them with open arms. We are all Libyans, all of us are victims of the same tyrant," he said.

Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Zintan, Libya
Editor: Rob Mudge

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