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Libyan rebels scored their most important victory in the nearly three-month old uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, when they captured the airport in Misrata on Wednesday, virtually taking control of the city. Gaddafi’s forces had been besieging Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, for two months and had driven the rebels into an area around the harbour, where they were subjected to constant rocket and artillery fire. Two Western journalists, one American and one British, were among the people killed by the heavy barrage during this time.
“The airport and its approaches were the last remaining pieces of significant terrain in the city to be controlled by the Qaddafi soldiers,” the New York Times reported.
NATO immediately followed up the rebel success with air strikes on Thursday on a compound in Tripoli. Three civilians were allegedly killed in the attack, but after a government-guided tour of the area, reporters suspect civilians are being used as human shields in the compound to protect a possible underground military complex.
The rebels’ capture of Misrata is important for several reasons. It is the only city the anti-Gaddafi forces hold in Western Libya and is regarded as the stepping stone to capturing Tripoli, Gaddafi’s stronghold. Located 130 miles east of Tripoli, a Misrata in rebel hands represents a knife at Gaddafi’s throat. Which is why the Libyan leader fought so bitterly to take it from rebel hands and why strenuous efforts may still be made in counterattacks to recover the lost ground there. But even if Gaddafi does succeed in containing the insurgents within Misrata, their victory will certainly add to the accumulating military strain on his forces.
Moreover, the rebels’ taking of Misrata is a huge public relations coup. In the eyes of the world, the battle for Misrata had become an important symbol of the anti-Gaddafi cause. Gaddafi is now seen to have failed to attain a goal he badly wanted and needed, and so close to home at that, while the rebels prevailed. Ultimately, if the rebels overthrow Gaddaffi, the Misrata victory may become for the Libyan conflict what Stalingrad was for the Soviets: a psychological and military turning point.
On the rebel side, probably their greatest advantage in breaking Misrata’s isolation consists in the fact they can now start to bring in food and medical supplies through the sea port for the city’s 500,000 desperate, suffering people. Only tugboats and a few Red Cross ships had risked making the trip to Misrata during the siege due to the danger.
Supplying soldiers and civilian populations, or logistics as military strategists term it, decides many wars, and some analysts believe this is what will determine the Libyan conflict’s outcome. On Wednesday, the rebels scored an important triumph in this area by opening an avenue to feed the people under their control in an important city.
Gaddafi, on the other hand, is facing a bleak future logistics-wise. Although Gaddafi’s army is believed to have enough weapons and ordnance for a year’s fighting, his ability to feed Tripoli’s one million people for that period of time is problematic. NATO has imposed a tight air and sea blockade around his stronghold. An extended period of suffering could see a renewal of the anti-Gaddafi protests the Libyan capital experienced earlier in the conflict that loyal security forces seem to have quelled. But when people become very hungry and unhappy, like in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, force will not prevent them from taking to the streets again.
While NATO countries are blocking Gaddafi’s supplies, they are helping rebel logistics significantly with shipments of food and aid to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. The first American ship to deliver “non-lethal aid” to the rebels arrived in Benghazi this week. Among the items delivered were 10,000 ready-to-eat meals. Ships from other NATO countries have already made trips to Benghazi, delivering food and aid, while Qatar has been sending the rebels weapons, the only country reported to have done so. The rebels have asked NATO for better weapons but the alliance has been slow to respond. The United Nations has imposed an arms embargo on Libya, but some governments interpret it as applying only to Gaddafi.
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