BREGA, Libya (Reuters) - Often carrying little more than milk cartons, cans of tuna and spare mattresses, hundreds of young volunteers continue to flock toward the front line of Libya’s revolt, even if many cannot fight.
Rebel military commanders asked volunteers last week to hang back from clashes with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi to allow more experienced fighters to coordinate strategy following a chaotic eastward retreat on Wednesday.
But with schools and many businesses still shut and young men with little to do, the volunteers’ vehicles -- an eclectic blend of pickup trucks, minivans and even taxicabs -- still litter the road outside Brega, the eastern oil town where fighting has rumbled on for four days.
“We won’t go back until Libya is liberated,” Mohamed Khairallah, 21, said as he sat beside the stark desert road near the city. “Or until we die martyrs,” his friend Saleh added, waving his cigarette. Neither man was armed.
Some have nevertheless continued to push ahead. Anwar Ibrahim, a 24-year-old volunteer, claimed to have trapped several Gaddafi troops in an ambush in Brega on Sunday morning, attacking them with machine guns and killing two.
“They were doing reconnaissance and we were doing reconnaissance. They came in two cars, a white one and black one, and we laid an ambush for them,” he said.
Ibrahim brought a friend over to verify his report. His friend, sporting a thin goatee, nodded confirmation, but said only one Gaddafi fighter was killed.
Hoping to break a stalemate, rebels fighting Gaddafi’s troops, tanks and artillery are trying to reorganize their military forces. They say they are bringing to the front better trained units, made up of defectors from the military.
But the persistent zeal of the volunteers has frustrated some of the more experienced fighters.
A scuffle broke out on the eastern outskirts of Brega on Sunday as a young man tried to advance toward the front. Fighters restrained the man as he shouted obscenities.
“They don’t have tactics, these guys,” said Mohammed Ali, a rebel special forces soldier nearby. “They go in, they fire, and that’s it.”
The danger of such an approach is obvious. Mohamed Geheny, 16, from Benghazi, hunched near a pickup truck outside Brega, pointed to his bandaged knee and said he was hit by shrapnel in an earlier fight.
“My parents aren’t scared,” he said, squinting in the desert sun. “If we die our souls will return to God. We’ll be martyrs.”
Most of the volunteers have obeyed the rebel military’s pleas, however and stayed down the road from Brega, just out of range of Gaddafi’s Grad missile launchers, much feared by the lightly-armed volunteers.
Some have tried to find other uses for themselves, working as mechanics, converting their trucks into ad hoc ambulances or simply cheering as rebels fire rockets from the desert.
“We can bring wounded back, and we can bring food and water up to those who have weapons,” said Saleh Soliman, 20, sitting in the back of his friend’s pickup.
Others spend time sparking campfires to make tea, posing for photos on the charred wreckage of vehicles and even smoking water pipes as they wait for the rebel army to clear the way.
Hamza el-Obeidy, a 26-year-old volunteer seated on a truck mounted with an anti-aircraft machine gun taken from the government military camp in Benghazi, said he intended to fight, but since Friday he only fired when the military gave orders.
“Most of the revolutionaries are listening to the orders,” he said. “If they don‘t, they might get killed.”
Editing by Jon Hemming