MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - When the battle for Misrata began in late February, Mahmoud Mohammed Askutri started out with a Kalashnikov rifle and four bullets.
Standing alongside his former schoolteacher, who was armed with a sharpened piece of metal, Askutri spotted and shot a soldier loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
He took the dead soldier’s Kalashnikov and bullets, thereby adding much-needed firepower at a time when most Libyans participating in the uprising against Gaddafi were fighting with knives, petrol bombs and hunting rifles.
In the subsequent months, Askutri, a local businessman who owns a construction company, has formed the rebel 1st battalion of the Al Marsa regiment, which he funds and supplies with weapons and ammunition bought on the black market.
While Libya’s third-largest city was under siege, he raised money, including a donation of a kilogram and a half of gold his mother had been saving up since 1998 to build a mosque, to help bring a first shipment of weapons to ammunition here.
Misrata has traditionally been one of Libya’s biggest centers of commerce and industry, and businessmen like Askutri are now using their wealth — once invested in palatial homes and business empires — to finance the fight to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
“The young men on the front line are not fighting for money or power,” said Askutri, speaking at his former summer house, which now serves as the 1st battalion’s command center. “They are doing this for dignity and freedom.”
“I’m ready to give everything for them, even to sell this house,” he added, waving at the home with its immaculate lawn.
But fighting here is expensive.
Some heavy weapons are given to the fighters in Misrata by the main rebel leadership in Benghazi in eastern Libya, others are scavenged, but the gaps are filled, say the rebels, by cutting deals with private arms dealers outside Libya who demand cash up front.
A single Kalashnikov rifle bought by that route costs $3,000. Askutri now has access to his bank accounts via Benghazi, and uses the funds to buy regular consignments of guns and ammunition for his men.
Helped in part by the weapons acquired with donors’ cash, the anti-Gaddafi militias forced government troops out of Misrata over weeks of bitter fighting. The rebels have now pushed the front line about 36 km (22 miles) west of the city but they are still besieged on three sides.
“If Gaddafi got back into Misrata, there would be a massacre,” Askutri said. “So we fight here or we die.”
On February 19, two days after the start of Libya’s rebellion, Fauzi Ibrahim Al Karshaine went out into the streets of Misrata with other residents to protest for more freedom.
When Gaddafi loyalists opened fire on the crowd, Al Karshaine was hit by five bullets in a line from his right thigh to just below his right shoulder.
Rushed to a local hospital, he was given emergency treatment by a doctor who warned him that if he stayed there, Gaddafi’s troops would kill him.
So he was helped for a month and a half by two young medical students who moved him around the city and kept him alive until the hospital was seized by the rebels and he could be treated.
Now unable to fight because of his wounds, Al Karshaine, joint owner of the Albaraka Hotel in central Misrata and owner of a large marble and granite company, says he is using his wealth to help his city.
He says he supplies food for the poor of Misrata, and also provides money to rebel groups to help them fund their operations, although does not get involved himself in buying weapons.
“I have no experience of buying guns, so I leave it up to the fighters to decide how best to use the money,” he said. “But if they use it to buy guns, that makes me happy.”
“I am very happy to support my people to fight this animal,” he added, referring to Gaddafi. “The businessmen of Misrata like myself are now fighting him with money instead of guns.”
Mohammed Raied has a simple yet specific dream for when — he does not say if — rebel fighters take Zlitan, the town immediately to the west of Misrata that is blocking the rebels’ advance toward the capital, Tripoli, 160 km (96 miles) away.
“I want every fighter to stand in the center of Zlitan with a gun in one hand and an ice cream in the other,” said the chairman of Al-Naseem, a yogurt, ice cream and fermented milk maker in Misrata.
Before the uprising, the company had invested heavily in state-of-the-art machinery, including a nearly completed 50 million euro expansion of its plant here. It had business across Libya and exported to neighboring countries.
Now Al-Naseem, founded by Raied and his four brothers, is running at a low capacity to serve Misrata and is looking to provide food to Benghazi. But since the only connection is currently by boat, that is a logistical headache.
The company’s plant and Raied’s home were struck by missiles fired by Gaddafi loyalists in March.
Over the past four months, Raied, who has also been head of the chamber of commerce in Misrata for the past 12 years, has chartered a cargo ship of weapons and ammunition from Benghazi at a cost of $100,000.
He has chartered 25 flights to take injured Misrata residents from Benghazi to Tunisia at $20,000 a flight and has chartered a ferry for a month to maintain a link with Benghazi.
Al-Naseem employees away at the front line or involved in the uprising war effort still receive their wages.
When asked if he considered that an investment in the future of Libya, Raied gave a slight, slow shake of his head.
“It is our duty,” he said, holding up a forefinger as he spoke. “If we don’t do this, Gaddafi would return, destroy everything and kill people.
Two of Raied’s sons are fighting at the front and a third will join them soon. The Al-Naseem company sends an ice cream truck to the front line every day with supplies.
On a recent Reuters visit to the front line, a fighter walked down the line handing out Al-Nassem chilled yogurts, which were wolfed down by young men there.
The firm has also paid for 700 cargo containers full of food to be brought here to help prevent the people of Misrata from going hungry.
“Everyone must do their duty to the best of their ability,” Raied said. “We have the enemy in front of us and the sea behind us.”
“There is no way to go,” he added. “So we have to fight.”
Editing by Peter Cooney