Libyan rebels dig in to hold front line village

Thu Jul 14, 2011 4:46am EDT

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* Fighters fled village, then fought their way back

* Al-Qawalish is a stepping stone towards Tripoli

* Rebels say won't be forced to flee again

By Peter Graff

AL-QAWALISH, Libya, July 14 (Reuters) - Libyan rebel fighters were digging in to this village south of Tripoli on Thursday after losing it then taking it back in a see-saw battle that exposed the military frailties of rebel forces.

Rebel fighters took the village, a staging post on the way to the capital about 100 km (60 miles) north, a week ago, then they lost it to government troops on Wednesday morning, and by nightfall they were back in control.

On Thursday morning there were scores of fighters manning defensive positions throughout Al-Qawalish, and they were supported by trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the back.

That was in contrast to the light defences in place on Wednesday morning when forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi quickly overran the village.

"We came yesterday and we stayed here and we said we are not moving until the place is secure," said one rebel fighter who was manning a machine gun and gave his name as Tommy. "This mistake is not going to happen again. We're not going home."

Rebels said forces loyal to Gaddafi, who were now positioned a short distance to the east, had shelled the village overnight but stopped after dawn. A NATO aircraft could be heard overhead.

Control of Al-Qawalish is strategically important because it allows the rebels to come down from their mountain stronghold and move towards the town of Garyan, which controls access to the main highway leading north to Tripoli.

MISTAKES

Mohammed al-Bujdidi, a local rebel commander, said there were now many more fighters in Al-Qawalish to stop pro-Gaddafi forces counter-attacking again.

"We do acknowledge that we made mistakes. Some of the Gaddafi forces were able to sneak past us with the support of collaborators," he said.

There were still signs of Wednesday evening's battle for control. Outside the village's eastern edge, the corpses of two young pro-Gaddafi soldiers lay in the road.

Rebels also said they had taken prisoner two government officers who, they said, were mercenaries from Mali.

The machine gunner who gave his name as Tommy said that when the rebels fought their way back into Al-Qawalish they found the bodies of three of their comrades who, he said, had been executed by government forces.

He said one of the dead men had been shot at short range with a large-calibre machine gun. "You could not even recognise his face," he said. (Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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