April 29, 2011 / 2:06 PM / 9 years ago

Libyans return to frontline town in boost to rebels

* Some Ajdabiyah residents trickling back

* Rebels guard Friday prayers

By Michael Georgy

AJDABIYAH, Libya, April 29 (Reuters) - Weeks of fighting against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had all but emptied the eastern flash-point town of Ajdabiyah, but some residents are trickling back as confidence strengthens in the rebel army. The insurgents have replaced the ragtag volunteers who used to guard Ajdabiyah with officers who had defected from Gaddafi’s army, a move seen as key to defending the gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

On Friday, some 2,000 people turned up for weekly Muslim prayers in Ajdabiyah’s main square, including many residents who had fled after the uprising against Gaddafi began on Feb. 17.

“We are still scared. Gaddafi’s forces fired about seven rockets yesterday,” said Emghaib Elzawy, an oil company employee who had escaped to Benghazi shortly after the fighting erupted.

“But we have to come back to Ajdabiyah. I’ve also brought my wife and children back,” he told Reuters.

Many people said Friday’s gathering was the biggest seen in the town for weeks, and a show of defiance after government forces fired rockets at the town. An effigy of Gaddafi hung from a pole in the square above unexploded artillery shells.

As the crowds listened to the sermon, rebel fighters guarded them from rooftops surrounding the square. An ambulance and a fire engine were also parked nearby.

“Gaddafi fired heavy weapons at us that we’ve never seen before, but we call on God to protect us,” the prayer leader told the congregation.

DAY OF RETURN

Ajdabiyah was once home to some 10,000 residents, but became a ghost town after changing hands several times between the rebels and Gaddafi’s forces.

In a recent battle, government forces, militiamen and snipers infiltrated the town but were beaten back by the rebels, who currently control Ajdabiyah.

Losing Ajdabiyah would be a big blow to the insurgents, who made big gains in eastern Libya then lost one town after another as Gaddafi’s troops and militiamen hit back in recent weeks.

The rebels had declared Friday a “Day of Return” and had been using the media under their control to urge Ajdabiyah’s residents to come back home.

Abdel Salam al Mughrabi, a teacher, was one of those who decided to heed the rebels’ calls.

“We feel much safer since the former army officers took over the western gate,” he said, standing beside his 13-year-old son.

From Ajdabiyah’s western gateway, scores of rebel volunteers had launched many, as yet unsuccessful, attempts to recapture the strategic oil town of Brega and two other towns to the west.

The more seasoned army officers who now control the area have tried to impose order by restricting movement.

In downtown, several civilians, including a man in his 70s, queued up near a bank to enlist as fighters. On the wall beside them was a poster declaring “Libya: Victory or Death”.

Some rebels took advantage of the large gathering to distribute what they called “risk pamphlets”: a list of what not to do with ordnance, such as poke it or step on it, and drawings of various kinds of explosives.

Despite the obvious risks, Ezzedine Boubakr, a 40-year-old employee at a technical college, said he was back to stay.

“No one can stay away from his hometown for too long,” he said. “If we die, we die martyrs, so it’s okay.”

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