Libyan rebels fighting to oust strongman Moamer Kadhafi have no doubt about it — in just a “a few days” they plan to retake the strategic oil hub of Brega, nestled on the Gulf of Syrte.
Rebels, backed by NATO helicopters, have tried for the past three weeks to seize this vital port 240 kilometres (140 miles) southwest of their eastern stronghold Benghazi.
On Wednesday, they were poised on the eastern fringes of the city, the outskirts of its residential area, an AFP journalist saw.
“Every day, we are gaining ground. We are at the entrance of the city. Some of our fighters have even got inside the residential area,” said Fawzi Bukatif, a civil engineer who became a top commander of the insurrection.
“We could be inside the city today, but with heavy casualties. We are trying to spare lives. It’s wiser to go slowly, to secure methodically our advance,” Bukatif, who is in charge of operations in Brega, told AFP.
His operation room is in a lack-lustre seaside building surrounded by containers near Zuwaytina, 70 kilometres (43 miles) northeast of Brega.
“Who holds Brega controls the centre part of the country and its oil fields,” he said.
In Brega, the transparent waters of the Mediterranean meet the desert of Syrte, a vast natural frontier driving a wedge between the Tripolitan west and the Cyrenic east of the north African nation.
Brega itself stretches several dozens of kilometres from east to west along the coastal road linking the rebel-held eastern city of Ajdabiya and the key oil hub of Ras Lanuf, controlled by forces loyal to strongman Moamer Kadhafi.
The oil town springs forth from the sands complete with a refinery, a port, a residential area and industrial complexes.
Rebels determined to take it have embarked on a three-pronged attack straddling the coast, the road from Ajdabiya and the south.
“We are surrounding the city. We have been using our artillery to empty the city,” Bukatif added.
In turn, Kadhafi’s troops have formed solid defence lines.
They have planted hundreds of mines in a bid to block the rebel advance, hidden their arms depots in warehouses and maximised an ingenious network of underground tunnels to move their tanks and vehicles undetected by NATO.
“NATO is very efficient,” said Bukatif adding that the strikes had forced the “3,000 Kadhafi troops” stationed there to make a gradual retreat, leaving the city empty except for a dozen families who prepare meals for the fighters.
The worst pocket of resistance is a factory on the route of the “Great Man-Made River,” a huge conduit bringing water from desert aquifers to coastal areas, where regime forces are strongly entrenched.
“It’s a question of days. As soon as we take the factory, it will be over,” Bukhatif added.
“Brega is a symbol. Psychologically, we need this victory.”
He added that rebels have no intention to “walk on Tripoli” as that path remains blocked by Syrte, birthplace and stronghold of Kadhafi.
“By capturing Brega, we fix and weaken Kadhafi forces, and we release the pressure on the other fronts of Misrata and Jebel,” he said in reference to Libya’s third city and the battle fronts of the western Nafusa mountains.
Rebels, he added, hope to get the oil town pumping again after victory.
“The exportation of oil will restart from here, as soon as possible.”