The last time I was in Brega was the worst day of my life.
I and two other journalists were captured in Brega and our dear friend and colleague, Anton Hammerl, was senselessly cut down by Gaddafi troops' gunfire.
Our loss had an additional senselessness because since April 5, the day we were captured, not much has changed in Brega. It remains an embattled oil town in eastern Libya where fighting continues. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces have held the strategic town on the Mediterranean for months. The Libyan rebels claimed they were planning to retake it, but they just haven't had the manpower or weaponry.
The day before we were captured, an opposition general told us their plan was to take and hold their forces at Brega, to prevent Gaddafi from once again collapsing their lines back to the rebel capital of Benghazi, where NATO air strikes clearly saved the city in mid-March.
Bloody Brega offensive
Finally this weekend, perhaps bolstered by a full U.S. recognition and the promise of hundreds of millions in frozen funds to help their fledgling volunteers, the rebels advanced on Brega in earnest. They were met by heavy shelling today. Ten rebel fighters were killed, according to AP, and 172 have been wounded in the last few days, many from landmines, according to doctors at the nearest functioning hospital in Ajdabiya. It's unclear how many government forces were killed, although four were said to have been captured.
These are extraordinary casualty numbers and a sure sign that an estimated 3,000 Gaddafi troops will not abandon Brega. If it falls to the rebels, the coastal highway opens up to Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte.
But first it seems, the rebels will have to deal with a devil's array of booby traps and dug in loyalists. According to reports, the offensive started when rebel forces approached Brega late Friday, only to find landmines and trenches filled with flammable liquid. Two hundred and fifty mines have been found so far, the AP reported.
Gaddafi's troops are most likely shelling from hilltop positions. The fact that you can't tell where the whistling explosions are coming from induces mind-numbing terror especially in the ill-trained. So retreats and then cautious advances along the 50 or so miles of road between Brega and Ajdabiya, a no-man's-land reportedly off limits to journalists, will go on for days and weeks.
"We are advancing and we are very close to Brega," said Mustafa al-Sagezli, a member of the rebel's revolutionary military council, adding that Gaddafi's troops had fallen back to positions inside the town, according to the AFP.
Sounds eerily familiar
I've heard comments like this from rebel spokesmen before. I know firsthand that Gaddafi's forces are bunkered down inside Brega and have commandeered civilian houses. We were tied up and taken to a civilian house in Brega the day we were captured. Brega was abandoned of civilians, and the loyalist troops treated it as "their" town. Later that afternoon we were blindfolded and shuttled west, through dozens of checkpoints to Sirte.
Luckily for the rebels, NATO is back on, or rather flying over, the scene. "We were very close to Brega at around three in the morning," a wounded 19-year old told the AFP. "Then we got instructions from NATO to fall back..."
NATO said on Friday it hit one tank, and up to 12 armed vehicles around the town, AFP reported.
'Thank Allah,' the rebels must be saying. But the air strikes can come few and far between, and the pilots seem to wait for a massing of heavy Gaddafi armor that is less and less visible, as those vehicles are destroyed.
Meanwhile, the slaughter below continues.
If the rebels take Brega, it would represent a breakthrough on a front that has become a true stalemate in this five-month-old conflict, and both parties know this.
For me it's personal. We believe Gaddafi forces surreptitiously buried our colleague somewhere outside Brega. If Brega is taken, there's some chance that his body could be found and some hope for closure for his family. Inshallah.