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Rebel fighters inexperienced, yet enthusiastic in southern Libya

From Ben Wedeman, CNN
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Rebels eye road to Tripoli
  • Rebels say they ousted Gadhafi's forces from Qawalish several days ago
  • The small village is 90 miles south of Tripoli
  • The fighters appear spirited, flashing victory signs and posing for photos
  • Aided by NATO strikes, they are hoping to unseat the longtime Libyan leader

Qawalish, Libya (CNN) -- Almost all civilians have fled the western Libya area around Qawalish, hoping to avoid the worst of the violence wracking the nation.

Yet there is a buzz around this village, which is in the hands of rebel fighters eager to defeat forces loyal to longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Their optimism and energy are matched, in many ways, by their inexperience.

When spotters on a rooftop spy vehicles they believe belong to the Libyan army, a rebel rocket team wipes off desert grit from their weapon, oils it up and fires -- their aim, at best, approximate.

The group's commander, Fahti, knows the opposition forces are in many ways overmatched.

"They have tanks. You hear that? Rockets," Fahti said. "They have mortars, all the heavy weapons."

Dressed in everything from military fatigues to polo shirts to T-shirts, the rebels are not the stereotypical picture of a modern fighting force. But despite their challenges, the rebels here have had success.

That includes, they say, driving Libyan forces several days ago out of the village 45 kilometers (90 miles) south of Tripoli, a key north-south route in the North African nation.

One fighter said Gadhafi's men are "very afraid" that rebels will soon take another big step forward by taking his home city of Gharyan, which is 45 kilometers to the north and just 100 kilometers south of the Libyan capital.

While strongest in the east near Benghazi, the opposition remains active around much of Libya.

A fighter named Mahmoud told CNN on Saturday that his comrades had conducted night raids and ambushes, for instance, around his native Zamiya, a coastal city still in the government's hands about 50 kilometers from Tripoli.

"But on the coast Gadhafi is strong, he has his people everywhere," Mahmoud said.

The opposition continues to get help in the form of NATO strikes. The alliance announced in a statement Saturday that it had struck a missile-firing position near Tawhurgha, south of Misrata, that it claims was tucked within a set of farm buildings.

Libyan forces used this area to attack civilians in nearby Misrata through missile strikes and as a staging area for attacks, NATO said.

In Qawalish, the rebels had some good fortune after coming upon an abandoned army base, and its boxes stacked almost to the ceiling with mortar and artillery rounds. The find was a welcome one for a force that, until recently, was struggling to muster the weaponry to keep up the fight.

Those rolling through checkpoints around the village are almost exclusively rebel fighters, drawn to the battlefront by their commitment to a common cause. Their enthusiasm appears strong as they drive by, crammed into the back of pickup trucks, smiling broadly and flashing victory signs.

And even with the sounds of war in the distance, some rebels pose for pictures -- victory photos, they hope, in their quest to end Gadhafi's 42 years in power.

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