ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - The rebels in Libya’s Western Mountains have shown resilience over months of battling Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, but divided loyalties could frustrate their ambitions for a quick march on Tripoli.
Rebel fighters in the region, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Tripoli are not organized into a single unit. Instead they are split by town and sometimes also by ethnic group, making it tough for them to sustain an offensive beyond their home turf.
Those short-comings were exposed in the village of Al-Qawalish, seized a week ago in a massed attack that brought together hundreds of rebel fighters from different communities.
But after the battle, most went back home, leaving a small local force to defend it. Troops loyal to Gaddafi exploited that on Wednesday when they attacked and overran the village.
The rebels massed again and by nightfall were back in control of Al-Qawalish, but their tactical blunders cost them seven men killed in Wednesday evening’s battle.
Most of the casualties in both of the battles for Al-Qawalish were borne by fighters from Zintan, one of the main towns in the region, a stretch of arid mountain plateau that extend to the border with Tunisia.
At a funeral on Thursday for some of those killed in the latest fighting, mourners chanted: “The martyrs are beloved of God,” and some fired rifles into the air.
A rebel commander named Moussab Edueb said the people of Zintan were resigned to bearing the brunt of the fighting.
“We know that we have no choice. The people of Zintan have to defend all of Libya,” he said.
As for neighboring villages, he added: “If they can, we need them to do more. We want all the Libyans to fight, but what can we do if they don’t want to fight.”
The divided loyalties of the Western Mountains rebels are on display whenever they go into action. The groups from different towns are capable of fighting alongside each other in planned operations, but for the most part they do not mix.
As soon as they roll into a new area, one of their first acts is to mark their turf with graffiti by tagging the walls with the names of their home towns.
This dedication to their communities was partly forged in the first months of the rebellion, when towns such as Zintan, Nalut and Yafran survived weeks of artillery bombardment and finally fought off the government troops besieging them.
The biggest and most heavily armed force in the region is from Zintan. The town’s fighters and commanders have months of battlefield experience and played a leading role in capturing Al-Qawalish both times, with their arsenal of rocket launchers, heavy machine guns and even tanks.
But some Zintan fighters grumble they are not given enough credit for their firepower and other towns’ forces are not pulling their weight. Adding to the rivalry, Zintan and some of its neighbors are Arab towns while fighters from many other Western mountains villages are from the Berber minority.
Although rebels from the two ethnic groups say they are united, they have a long history of rivalry and mistrust.
For defensive purposes, fighters usually man positions near their hometowns, avoiding the friction with the locals that would come with deploying in other areas.
As rebel-held territory gets larger and more far-flung, it means the biggest, best-armed and best-organized units are often based back in hometowns that are now far from the front.
If the rebels are to march on the capital, they will have to take and hold towns in the plains below, where many would resist an attempt by fighters from the mountains to occupy them because they are from tribes traditionally loyal to Gaddafi.
For now, the rebels say they have learned the lessons of Al-Qawalish and will commit more resources to defending strategic objectives, even those far from home.
Mokhtar Lakder, another Zintan rebel commander, said seven smaller, closer towns had been assigned the task of defending Al-Qawalish, while Zintan was responsible for other areas.
“Seven towns. They should have had 150 men defending Qawalish,” he said.
The plan is now to have all Western Mountains towns contribute fighters to defending Al-Qawalish in shifts.
The rebels’ next big Western Mountains target is Al-Asabah, a larger town east of Al-Qawalish on the road toward Tripoli. Rebels say that battle will be their hardest as it is in an open area and still populated by civilians, many Gaddafi supporters.
If they are to take it, and march on Tripoli, they will need to present themselves as a united movement and try to win over skeptical local people.
There are signs in Al-Qawalish of how difficult that will be. Rebels deny systematically punishing Gaddafi sympathizers, but in the village, the houses of people suspected of collaborating with government troops have been set on fire.
Editing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Sophie Hares