NALUT, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s army is so demoralized that officers have to threaten soldiers and their families with death to force them to fight, government forces captured by rebels told Reuters Thursday.
“I don’t want to fight to any more. I don’t want blood,” said one soldier who was wounded after rebels launched an offensive Thursday on government-controlled towns and villages below Libya’s Western Mountains.
“But a senior officer looked me straight in the eye and warned me and other men in my unit. He said, ‘either you go to the front and stay there or we will kill you’.”
His story, told from his hospital bed in the rebel-held mountain town of Nalut, could not be independently verified but several other captured soldiers and pro-Gaddafi militiamen gave similar accounts of the state of the army.
“The army does not want this. The whole world is against the Libyan army. How can we win?” said another soldier named Hassan. Rebel fighters were in the hospital room while he talked, but did not appear to be monitoring the soldier’s conversation.
Blood dripped from a stump on Hassan’s forearm. His hand had been blown off in an attack during the offensive to try to capture the locally strategic town of Ghezaia, which has been held by Gaddafi throughout the five-month conflict.
It has been used as a base to shell towns like Nalut, some 300 km (180 miles) west of Tripoli, and the border post with Tunisia.
Reports of low army spirits could provide a morale boost for rebels who hold the western highlands of rocky desert terrain but are struggling to move closer to Gaddafi’s stronghold of Tripoli.
The poorly armed insurgents in the Western Mountains region and elsewhere lack military training and coordination and rely heavily on NATO to keep the far better-equipped army from sweeping through rebel-held areas.
As pickup trucks and ambulances carrying wounded Libyan government soldiers arrived at the hospital in Nalut, rebel fighters shouted “Allahu Akbar (God is great).” Explosions could be heard in the distance.
The two sides spent much of the day attacking each other with missiles and mortar bombs, battles that usually just extend the stalemate.
Hospital officials said they received two dead rebels and 18 wounded, as well as nine wounded Gaddafi soldiers, during the morning.
Some soldiers lay in beds in the emergency room with severe gunshot wounds as doctors prepared to operate.
Those whose lives were not at risk were taken to a room at the end of a corridor and questioned by rebels. Their boots had been gathered and left in plastic bags.
The soldiers, in green uniforms, were dazed and clearly nervous whenever rebels, some armed with AK-47 assault rifles, walked in and raised their voices.
“So you are one of Gaddafi’s men I see,” said a bearded, wiry man who slapped a soldier on the head and laughed.
Another rebel lunged forward to try and hit a soldier in a wheelchair, but was held back. Overall, the captives seemed to be treated well.
“I never thought I would see the day when I would be standing over such a helpless Gaddafi soldier,” said physician Tuhamee Omar. “But we are doctors who help both sides.”
Rebels pushed another government soldier in a wheelchair to an elevator leading to another ward. They paused as the man — whose names rebels insisted must not be used — described the mood in the military to Reuters.
“We have had enough. We’ve been fighting because we had to. It’s either that or Gaddafi kills us or our families,” he said.
Edited by Richard Meares and Sophie Hares