WEST OF AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels stuck on a stagnant frontline in eastern Libya blame a mixture of planning chaos and poor military equipment for the lack of progress in their fight against Muammar Gaddafi.
Insurgents made swift gains in eastern Libya earlier in the war but later lost one town after another as government troops beat them into a chaotic retreat in late March.
Since then, the eastern front has turned into a back and forth battle for control of a strategic stretch of desert road between Ajdabiyah, which marks the gateway to the rebel-held east, and Brega, 80 km (50 miles) further west.
In one frontline camp, rebel fighters, some barefoot and wearing t-shirts, sat in the shade of their makeshift tents gazing toward Gaddafi troops invisible beyond a distant horizon simmering in the desert heat.
“We marched (to Brega) last week and were defeated again. There was a lack of unity among our commanders. We have to be better prepared,” said one fighter, Abdusalam Adbulati, 37.
Sporting aviator sunglasses and a maroon beret, he added: “I don’t want to badmouth them. They work hard to improve planning, discipline. I hope it will improve soon, by will of God.”
As the war drags on, the rebels, mostly enthusiastic young people with little battle experience, have thrown up sand berms and reinforced the western edge of Ajdabiyah with aging Russian T-54 tanks and homemade artillery installations.
They said that during last week’s attempt to take Brega, a key unit deployed south of their position failed to send reinforcements due to problems with planning and communication.
At the camp, rocket launchers previously mounted on attack helicopters or Soviet-era fighter jets were welded onto some rebel trucks — a show of insurgent ingenuity but also highlighting their dire need for more conventional military hardware.
Pop music blared from tents and opposition tricolor flags flapped in the wind blowing from the Mediterranean coast just north of their defensive position. Camels grazed near the camp.
Some prayed for victory at a makeshift mosque, a plot of land in the desert marked by stacked-up boxes of North Korean-made tank ammunition for Soviet-built tanks nearby.
Charred hulks of Gaddafi tanks destroyed in Western air strikes and empty artillery casings glistened in the sun.
NATO forces have bombed Gaddafi positions here in the past few weeks and used attack helicopters to allow more accurate targeting.
The Gaddafi army has been reinforcing positions around Brega — home to important oil installations — for weeks, and has dug in long-range batteries in a way that conceals them from NATO.
As debate rages among some Western powers whether they should expand air support, the rebels themselves on the ground avoided any sharp words when asked about NATO but suggested they wanted to see more involvement.
“There is very little fighting. But NATO is doing a great job. We are waiting for their helicopters to help us in Brega,” said Abdulam Sasi Igderi, a fighter. “It’s very important for NATO to clear the way for us. Otherwise we are stuck here.”
Rebel commanders say they are taking organization and training seriously, and have praised NATO’s role.
“All of them, they are trained already,” said Ahmed Bani, the rebel military spokesman. “As for organization, we have officers, professionals, they are organizing everything, and they have discipline. Their morale is high.”
For the rebels near Ajdabiyah, the frontline has been the same desert scrub for weeks. Short bursts of fighting are followed by increasingly long periods of waiting. No one could say if there was a plan under way for a possible breakthrough.
“We cannot take Brega easily. Gaddafi has 7,000 fighters there, we only have 5,000 on our side,” said Muhammad Abdulrahim, a 19-year-old rebel wearing flip flops.
“There should be more discipline and planning. They (fighters) should be more serious. We need more vehicles and better organization. Most of our fighters are former civilians like me.”
Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by David Stamp