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July 1, 2011

While rebels are fighting a mere 70 kilometers from Tripoli, Deutsche Welle spoke with Mokhtar Milad Fernana, the main rebel commander of Libya's western front at his headquarters in Zintan, in Nafusa mountains.

rebel leader
Rebel commander Mokhtar Milad FernanaImage: DW

Deutsche Welle: How and when did you become the chief commander of the Western rebel front?

Mokhtar Milad Fernana: I was a colonel in the ground forces but I defected when the revolution began. Soon after, five locations in Nafusa mountains were liberated and each one set up its revolutionary council. An assembly between the five elected me as the chief representative. Today the area under my command includes the Nafusa mountain range and as well as Tripoli and the area between the capital and Tunisia.

But you are still wearing the insignia of the regime you are now struggling to oust, isn't that a contradiction?

I am a soldier and, as such, I have to wear my uniform until we get a new one from Benghazi. That will happen when we win the war.

What is the structure of the whole Western rebel apparatus?

As I said, each district has a council leaded by a commander and we have weekly meetings to coordinate since March 15. The different councils put their queries on the table. Other than that, there's no phone line so our communications are via satellite.

What is your strategy?

On the one hand we need to liberate every town in Libya under the control of Gadhafi troops so we finally get to surround the enemy. Of course, we have to keep our position and protect our people from new attacks. Gadhafi's strength doesn't rely on his weapons but on the human shields he uses.

Local people are being strongly armed by the Libyan National Transition Council. Has crime increased in the areas under your control since the revolution started?

Quite the contrary. Crime has fallen by around 80 percent since the beginning of the revolution. Local security is under control because we are in close contact with the local tribes. We haven't witnessed any abuse nor looting in the abandoned houses so far.

How do you get NATO to bomb the positions you're struggling to reach?

Unfortunately it's a very slow process as everything has to be done through Benghazi. Here on the Western front we miss a more direct communication with NATO.

You painted a runway on the main road near Jadu village a few weeks ago. Is it operational?

One of our biggest concerns is to get supplies from Benghazi, that's why we set up that road. So far we have conducted a test with an empty cargo plane but we have received no supplies from there yet.

Is that why French officials are claiming that they are providing you with army drops?

I have a good and fluent communication with all the revolutionary councils and I have not yet heard of any air drops coming from France. There´s no doubt that we are waging a war of information too.

Some say that you have gained momentum thanks to the geography of the area under your control but the road to Tripoli is completely flat. Do you think that this may lead to a stalemate as seems to have happened in Brega or Misrata?

Libyan rebels
The rebels are confident of reaching Tripoli in the next few weeksImage: DW

There's no doubt that it will be more difficult but I'm positive about our future operations down the valley. We're already fighting there, just 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Tripoli, and we have intelligence in every single village on the way. If things go as expected we will take over Tripoli in three weeks.

Relations between Arabs and Berbers in the mountains of Nafusa have historically been tense. Is this affecting the men under you command?

Gadhafi tried hard for decades to deteriorate relations between the two communities but today we're struggling together to oust him from power. Moreover, certain Arab tribes from Nafusa have historically had better relations with Berbers than with other neighboring Arab clans. Today, Berbers and Arabs in the front are fighting alongside, there's no problem between them.

What will the army's role be when the war is over?

Gadhafi will try anything to quell us. I'm sure he'll call al Qaeda Islamists in his last moments of desperation. I'm personally convinced that the Islamist threat will remain even when the war is over so protecting the civilians from them will still be a key issue in the new Libya.

Both government and opposition are accusing each other of using mercenaries. Are you?

We know that Gadhafi is paying mercenaries because we have several of them in our jails. Also, many of the army soldiers we have made prisoners have told us that these same mercenaries were threatening any potential defector. Many soldiers have confessed that they felt trapped between the mercenaries on the front and the security forces who controlled the towns in the rearguard. Whether we're using mercenaries or not, I´m sure you've already checked by yourself that our soldiers are all Libyans.

Interview: Karlos Zurutuza, Zintan
Editor: Rob Mudge

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