Rebel pays price in fight for Libyan town

GARYAN, Libya Thu Aug 18, 2011 9:43am EDT

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GARYAN, Libya (Reuters) - Driving Muammar Gaddafi's soldiers from this mountain town south of Tripoli came at a high price for rebel fighter Hamid Mahmoud.

"(My son) was killed by a sniper while I was on the other side of the street," Mahmoud said of his 32-year-old son Ahmed, who fought alongside him during the battle for Garyan.

"He was trying to rescue a comrade who got shot three times by a sniper. This is the price you have to pay for freedom. You have to pay a price. What can you do?" he said.

Libyan rebels seized control of Garyan two days ago, after forcing Gaddafi's soldiers into a swift retreat north along the main road to the capital.

Gaddafi's fighters left behind a tank and an anti-aircraft gun -- now displayed by the rebels in the town's central square, beneath the green, red and black rebel flag and amid chants of "God is great!"

"We struggled first because we had only light weapons," said Qais Al-Hadi, a local rebel commander. "But now we control the town 100 percent, now Tripoli comes next."

The fighting in Garyan was light due to the quick retreat, with most of the buildings suffering little more than the pock marks left by the rebels and the government snipers.

Only the town's telephone and post offices suffered major damage, walls crumbled and cables exposed.

The rebels said the swift retreat by Gaddafi's forces seemed like an invitation for them to advance to the capital.

"The road is now clear, there is no big town left (in our way)," said one of the fighters, Mohammed Mahmoud, as he stood in the square overlooking the plain and the road below.

Gaddafi's government has downplayed recent rebel advances that have increasingly isolated his Tripoli stronghold. A government spokesman said it would overcome the "crisis" in a matter of days.

But in Garyan's hospital, an injured soldier captured by the rebels said morale in Gaddafi's military was "weak."

(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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