Oil and water: Libya's potent mixture

Rebels and loyalists are fighting a bitter battle in the arid south

Oil and water: A potent mixture oil

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

As the Libyan revolution appears to be mired in deadlock in the east, a guerrilla war has sprung up in the deep desert of the south. Home to Libya’s strategic oil and water reserves, this is the crucial forgotten front of the war.

The beautiful expanse of desert around the oasis town of Jalu, held by rebels, lies 225 km south of the front line between Brega and Ajdabiya. Here, the sand dunes have the eerie, silent calm of an abandoned landscape. But on the long, exposed road through the region—the only route north—there are the dangers of an unseen enemy. The area is ringed by forces loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who have reoccupied many of the nearby oil fields after rebel forces initially seized them. Travelling in small groups, in pickups that hide them from NATO strikes, they launch sabotage and kidnap missions on the roads around the rebel town.

“If you travel in the area there is no guarantee that you won’t meet a Gadhafi man. They roam, maybe 300 cars around, waiting to attack,” says Jalu resident Khaled Qais, 22. Qais was recently stopped on the road by Gadhafi soldiers. “I told them I support Gadhafi, and I raised the green flag. I was terrified.” The soldiers didn’t believe him. He and his three friends were dragged from their car, beaten and thrown into a Gadhafi prison. “I was captured for 21 days,” says Qais.

More than 30 people have been captured on the roads or in raids on the town. Jalu’s residents rarely venture beyond the cover provided by the large date plantations that surround the homes. The attacks are indiscriminate, and generate constant fear. “My youngest brother thought Gadhafi was the best. Now he is in prison,” says resident Jweli Ibrahim. “He still has not been released.”

The town itself has been assaulted twice since April 30. Wielding machine guns mounted on 25 pickups, the regime’s forces raided the oasis from all sides. “Give up your weapons, give up your flag!” they screamed, recounts one resident. Four people died in the first attack. Pockmarked walls, a gunned-down revolutionary flag, and roadblocks cutting off every side street from the main road tell the tale of the intrusions.

After the desert town joined the revolution on Feb. 18, Gadhafi loyalists showered it with government propaganda. “They sent in people to negotiate, and to re-erect the green flag in our town,” says Ali Said Mawaj, who heads Jalu’s rebel authority for the Interim Transitional National Council. The pro-Gadhafi forces littered the town with leaflets and notes, filled with support for Gadhafi. As Jalu’s people resisted the written onslaught, the campaign darkened to blackmail. “A major-general came with the threat: put the green flag up or we attack,” explains Mawaj.

Despite being surrounded, the townspeople remain determined not to back down. “When they attacked, we left the building, but the flag was left flying,” says Mawaj. “After this we became prepared to defend ourselves. We pulled the guards from the oil fields—we do not have the manpower so we retreated back into Jalu.” Gadhafi’s men have since taken back three of the five oil fields that surround Jalu, although it appears they remain off-line, while the insecurity on the roads has made operation of the other two fields all but impossible for the rebels. In this shifting front line, NATO air strikes can do little; this month they targeted suspected loyalist bases near what is known as oil field 59, but further attacks risk setting the oil fields alilght.

The south contains many of Libya’s most important sources of oil, and the war there has become a battle for resources. Gadhafi forces are bombing the power turbines in all the fields that have pipeline links to the rebel-held east of the country, say Jalu residents. “Without the turbines we can’t pump the oil out of the field,” says Mawaj, who has 20 years’ experience working on the local oil fields. For now, foreign oil workers, crucial to running the equipment, have fled. And as the war becomes entrenched and prolonged, and resources dwindle, Gadhafi’s saboteurs could seriously impede any restarting of the fields. Some residents believe Gadhafi forces are working on a grander plan still. One local policeman said that saboteurs had switched one of the oil junctions so that crude could eventually be diverted to the west instead of the rebel-held east.

Two monuments in Jalu represent the strategic importance of the region. One is a statue of an oil pump—the symbol of the town. The other, standing by it, is a huge section of water pipe: the south is also the country’s main water source. Huge aquifers lie below the desert, and one pipeline supplies water to Libya’s coastal strip—both the rebel east and Gadhafi-held west. That infrastructure acts as a block against permanently dividing the country. “No one will divide Libya. Look at the economics, the agriculture—the different parts of Libya complete each other,” says Jalu council member Nasser Mohammed. That means that one or the other side must ultimately win—with this desert expanse a crucial area of control for both sides.

The rebels in Jalu appear determined to persevere. But Jalu’s defences are manned by an army of untrained locals who have moved into the Gadhafi family residence at the northern entrance to the oasis. Outside the lavish villa, young men—mostly unarmed, check the ID cards of passing cars from a checkpoint fashioned out of sand mounds, office chairs and teacups. Omar al-Majbari, a 27-year-old volunteer with the Jalu fighters, says he would not have been allowed to walk outside the villa’s walls previously. “Many times we had to say, ‘Gadhafi, you’re the best,’ ” he says. “Now I’m proud to be standing inside his house.” But he knows that Jalu could pay a high price: “We will try to fight them if they come, but without NATO we will all be killed.”

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