BIR AL-GHANAM, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels planning an offensive on their hometown Zawiyah are still haunted by memories of what they say was a brutal government crackdown against an uprising in the town earlier this year.
The fighters, who captured the nearby desert settlement of Bir al-Ghanam over the weekend, said they witnessed widespread atrocities before they fled Zawiyah and are now determined to free it from government control.
A town that lies on the Mediterranean coast about 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, Zawiyah earlier this year briefly became a symbol of the violence meted out to people who revolted against Muammar Gaddafi's rule.
Residents rose up against Gaddafi, then spent weeks fighting security forces who were trying to restore control.
U.S. President Barack Obama urged the Libyan leader to stop attacking the town. But by the middle of March, pro-Gaddafi forces had snuffed out the Zawiyah's rebellion.
With rebels on the run or in jail since then and the town under tight control, few details have emerged of how Gaddafi's security forces smashed the uprising in Zawiyah.
Now, a large contingent of rebels from Zawiyah has gathered in the desert about 40 km south of their hometown to prepare an offensive and, in quiet moments, reflect about what happened.
Tareq Galal, 19, who left school to become a fighter, recalled the period when pro-Gaddafi forces were being rushed to Zawiyah to crush the revolt.
"I must have counted about 120 tanks and 75 vehicles with anti-aircraft guns attached to them. They fired indiscriminately, at crowds, at houses with both rebels and civilians. Lots of bodies and lots of blood on the streets," said Galal.
"This is one of the reasons why we want to take Zawiyah so badly."
Like his comrades, he grabbed a rifle from a military arms depot and relied on skills he learned while hunting to fight the government forces sent to Zawiyah, including an elite unit run by Gaddafi's son Khamis.
SHOT IN HEAD
They managed to take weapons like AK-47 assault rifles as well. But eventually ammunition ran out and Gaddafi's forces showed no mercy, the rebels said.
"You would be at a mosque and the person next to you would get hit in the forehead with a bullet. When you see a friend with half a face missing it really gets to you," said Galal.
The rebels' accounts could not be independently verified.
Gaddafi's government has denied allegations of human rights abuses during the six-month revolt in Libya. It describes the rebels as armed criminals inspired by al Qaeda.
The fighters, cleaning weapons near a sand bank on the edge of Bir al-Ghanam beside an army base destroyed in NATO airstrikes, said they did not know the exact number of people who died in Zawiyah. But many said they believed it could have been in the hundreds.
One rebel played a video on his cell phone showing what he said were bleeding victims of indiscriminate shootings by security forces being carried to a mosque as steady gunfire crackled in the distance.
"I was detained at a government checkpoint where I saw a man who had a bullet wound to the leg being slapped in the face by Gaddafi's militiamen," said rebel Isa Furjan, who was an engineer in his former life.
Others said they came across victims of the crackdown whose throats had been slit.
"I saw three people like that when I took the wounded to the hospital," said one fighter, standing on the minaret of a mosque and using binoculars to watch government forces about six kilometres from Bir al-Ghanam.
"We have to save Zawiyah."
The rebels, who say they are 600-strong, say the biggest danger they will encounter when they try to take the town is snipers. Gaddafi placed many of them there when he crushed the uprising, they say.
"Two of my friends were killed because they did not want to allow Gaddafi's militiamen to use the rooftop of their home as a sniper position," said a rebel who asked not to be named. "I saw the bodies. Their hands were tied behind their backs."