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Benghazi Basic Training: Can Libya’s Ragtag Rebels Shape Up In Time?

At the gates of Benghazi, military training is being dispensed to all those eager to go to the frontlines. But enthusiasm can’t make up for poor hardware.

Checkpoint Brega
Checkpoint Brega
Adrien Jaulmes

BENGHAZI – In a camp near the southern entrance of Benghazi, a group of would-be soldiers of the Libyan revolutionary army are sitting loosely on the ground. Some wear mismatched uniforms, but most are dressed in civilian clothes. Another group is set to begin studying how to operate a Kalashnikov. Before getting down to business, the men all shout a hearty "Liberty! Freedom!"

"You must first remove the clip and verify the chamber," says the instructor, his head covered by a helmet painted in black, green and red, the colors of the Libyan revolution. He shows the gun to 50 or so young men and teenagers sitting under the blinding sun.

While another group focuses on a battered 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine gun, others gather around a multiple rocket-launcher barely larger than a wheelbarrow. This piece of equipment made in Korea is all the artillery Libyan revolutionary can count on. "This kind of launcher has only a nine kilometer range, compared with more than 20 kilometers for the Grad rocket-launchers used by Gaddafi's forces' the instructor explains.

"The training lasts about three weeks," says Nasser el-Cheikh, one of the experienced soldiers in charge of the program. "The first two weeks are dedicated to theoretical learning, and the last one to the actual practice. Then recruits are sent to the front. During Gaddafi's rule, people actually paid money to avoid doing their military service; now volunteers keep coming to us."

Most are just out of high school. Odeifa is exactly 18 years old, but he is already almost a veteran, given his involvement in the triumphant victory obtained by the rebels in Sirte at the beginning of last month. Odeifa's joy did not last long however, since the victory was followed by rapid retreat. The desire to improve his military skills brought him to this training camp. "We were pushed back from Ras Lanouf to Brega and Ajdabiya. So I think I need more proper training."

Econ majors join the fight

Abdel Mounim Fawzi and Djouma Mohammed are two friends studying economics at the Gar Younès University in Benghazi. "We took part in the demonstrations when the revolution started," Fawzi says. "Now we want to learn how to fight." His cousin was killed by Gaddafi's police at the beginning of the uprising.

Other trainees are considerably older. "I am ready to go and fight," says Mofteh Logelli, a 57-year-old electrician who has now become a specialist in handling multiple rocket-launchers. "I am here to defend my country against Gaddafi, who is keen on killing his own people. I have seen men older than me that want to fight alongside the young. And nobody is paying us for this, unlike Gaddafi's mercenaries."

Recruits are divided in three groups. The first is trained to protect the rear positions: the volunteers will be in charge of protecting control points in the streets of Benghazi and along the roads in Cyrenaica. The second group -- which is given a more substantial theoretical training – will be defending strategic installations such as public buildings, oil rigs and airports. The third group is trained by the actual fighters, destined to be sent to the front.

Nouri Tawi is a former officer of the Libyan special forces. Having retired from the army 22 years ago, he has now returned to his military past as an instructor for the revolutionary forces. A veteran of the Libyan military adventures in Chad in the 1980s, he explains just how shabby Gaddafi's army really is.

"After the defeat in Chad, Gaddafi dismantled most of his units and forced his officers to retire. He didn't trust them and he was wary of their popularity. So he stopped sending any money or new equipment to them. The only troops spared were the ones under the command of Gaddafi's son Khamis. Now we start from scratch."

Just as the Libyan revolution itself, the recruits in the camp are joyful, full of fervor, but cruelly lacking organization and competent leaders. "The young men here are very eager and intelligent," says Nouri Tawi, the instructor in charge of the course on small arms. "But what we really need are modern weapons to replace the current old Soviet equipment. We could use some anti-tank missiles, and radios too. We have suffered for poor communications systems. And we could also use some good leaders."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Al Jazeera

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