AJDABIYA, Libya (Reuters) – – Holding a plastic mine in one hand and a detonator in the other, the Libyan rebel explains the crude methods he uses to clear the devices planted by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces near the oil town of Brega.
“I defuse them myself,” said the fighter, who gave his name as Mousbah, beaming with pride. “I was in the army for 32 years. I am a weapons technician.”
Mousbah may have military experience but many of the rebels fighting to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule are no more than enthusiastic volunteers with light weapons and little battle experience.
They spend hours each day scavenging for mines around Brega, one of the last strongholds of Gaddafi’s forces on the way to Tripoli, and deal with them any way they see fit, some saying they simply open fire on them with their assault rifles.
The front line around Brega has deadlocked since for weeks, and when the rebels pushed forward last week they found themselves blocked by what they say are hundreds of thousands of mines. Theminefields are severely slowing the rebel advance on the strategic town and blocking their march toward the capital.
“The whole area is full of mines. When we see them in the ground, we shoot at them and they blow up,” Khaled, a rebel, told Reuters at Ajdabiya hospital, while waiting for a fellow wounded fighter to be treated.
Some rebel officials say Gaddafi’s forces have planted 400,000 mines around Brega alone and have pushed back the rebels by filling trenches with petrol and setting them ablaze.
Tuesday, at least 18 fighters were killed and up to 150 were wounded in clashes over the control of Brega. Many of those brought to the hospital in Ajdabiya that day lost arms and legs to mines. The rebel advance has since slowed to a crawl.
“It was a disaster. There were many cases of amputations,” said a doctor at Ajdabiya hospital in rebel-held eastern Libya.
SCATTERED MINES “NEW FOR US’
Gaddafi’s government denies it has used landmines in areas where civilians could be harmed during the five-month-old uprising.
Libya is not party to the international treaty that bans the use of landmines, but rights groups say its use of the weapons violates established norms, especially if they are laid in areas where they pose a threat to civilians.
Rebel officers say the mines planted by Gaddafi’s forces are sophisticated, mainly Chinese or Brazilian made, and were planted in a way intended to confuse the enemy.
“The mines were laid down scattered in a random fashion. If they were planted according to a certain grid you can clear them easily if you knew their pattern,” said Colonel Ahmed Bani, a rebel military spokesman. “They are advanced kinds that are not easy to deal with.”
Some mines are linked together by a wire that triggers other several mines if one is disturbed, while others are made of plastic so they cannot be found by ordinary metal detectors.
Others are placed on top of each other with one mine over the ground and another buried in the sand, so when someone picks up the top one, the buried one goes off.
“These mines around Brega are new for us, we have not dealt with them before,” said Colonel Adham Abdul-Qader, who fought with Gaddafi’s army during the 1978 Libyan-Chadian war.
“We have many former military officers with experience working to clear the mines but the majority are volunteers.”
Sunday, a rebel spokesman in Ajdabiya said the fighters had received new mine detectors, most probably from Qatar.
Lying on his bed in al-Jalaa hospital in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, 37-year-old Ibrahim Mayloud was lucky to survive a mine explosion with only a fractured jaw and minor shrapnel wounds to his back.
He was wounded Wednesday, when an anti-vehicle mine exploded in the desert near Brega as the crew were trying to clear the explosive, he said, struggling to speak because of his wounds. One of his comrades lost his fingers on the same day when another mine hit his truck.
“We have asked them to provide us with more mine clearance equipment but they have not … We have two detectors. So we tried to look for mines and one blew up,” said Mayloud, who worked as a plumber before joining the fighting in March.
Asked how the rebels know where the minefields are, he said: “After a car blows up, we know the whole road has mines.”