February 28, 2011 / 5:21 PM / in 6 years

Libya rebel army says training before Tripoli push

5 Min Read

* Rebel army giving training in assault, defence

* Army generals say siding with a revolutionary council

* Rebels say each family armed and ready

By Tom Pfeiffer and Mohammed Abbas

BENGHAZI, Libya, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Libya's eastern rebel army is urging young men eager to dash west and engage Muammar Gaddafi's forces to wait so they can turn them into an effective fighting force.

Hundreds from the eastern city of Benghazi are setting off each day across the desert to Libya's capital, some carrying knives and assault rifles, residents told Reuters.

But rebel officers say many more stayed behind to gather at makeshift training camps in schools and burnt-out barracks.

"We can give them what they need: training in assault, in defending a position. They should know that we are here to protect the youth revolution," said Marai Lojeli, a colonel in his 50s.

On a scrubby rain-soaked school field near a busy road in central Benghazi, Colonel Musa Fitouri explained the workings of an anti-aircraft cannon to a dozen fresh recruits.

Fitouri, a small, wiry man with a neat grey moustache looks about three times the age of his pupils, some of whom sport Che Guevara-style berets, kifaya scarves and short wispy beards.

A tall, stocky captain barks an order and two of the young men step forward to gingerly heave a box of artillery rounds under one of the twin black barrels.

They are too slow and he tells them to try again.

"Of course we all want to go to Tripoli," said Ashraf Ali Jaffar, a 41-year-old major looking on. "But these people need to be assigned to units and trained to protect Benghazi. As soon as we can do that, we can go to Tripoli."

Helping the regular army are military men who retired or resigned from the armed forces years ago.

"I was close to Gaddafi and even fought a Libyan army unit in 1991 when they tried to kill him," said former air force pilot Awa Zoubi who was injured in a crash and now works loading trucks. "I was not happy when he began killing civilians. My life has no meaning when those around me are dying."

Feared Brigades

Army generals who have defected from Gaddafi say the regular army has almost completely abandoned him and sided with a nascent revolutionary council based in Benghazi.

Rebels fought government forces trying to take back strategic coastal cities on either side of the capital Tripoli on Monday.

In Benghazi, rebel army officers say the feared brigades most loyal to Gaddafi monopolised the heaviest, most modern weaponry, leaving the regular army poorly equipped.

"When we entered their barracks, the arsenal there was huge. We've taken 1,000 heavy artillery weapons," said Rafaa, an officer who preferred not to give his family name.

Leaders of the revolutionary coalition based in Benghazi's courthouse have sought to reassure the public that guns are not falling into young, untrained hands.

But some evidence suggests civilians in Benghazi region are stocking up on weapons found after Gaddafi's forces fled.

That could make it harder for rebel army officers to stop the emergence of badly-disciplined militias lacking the coordination to fend off a major assault from the west.

Callers to Benghazi's "liberated" radio station have complained that guns are now "in the hands of children".

Rebel soldiers at a military base in Djabiya, 150 km southwest of Benghazi, said light weapons had already been distributed to young men from the town.

One showed a Reuters reporter a room piled high with artillery shells and mortar rounds, rockets, tank missiles and large calibre bullets.

Khalid al-Obeidi, another soldier, said more than 1,000 lighter weapons had already been distributed to residents.

"Yes, any young men of the revolution who come here, we give them a weapon. We're ready for anything," said Obeidi.

At another weapons dump in Haweia near Djabiya, soldier Osama Zwei said boys over 15 were being trained to use a gun, showing off two mortar rounds taken from unopened crates.

Zwei said resistance to any attack on the Djabiya area would be fierce. "We have an army, but we are ready to fight house to house if we have to," said Zwei, adding:

"Every family has a weapon now." (Editing by Peter Millership and Jon Boyle)

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