By Charlene Gubash, NBC News
NALUT, Libya – The people of Nalut, a quiet town in the mountains of Libya, gathered together to grieve on Friday. “There is no God, but God and martyrs are beloved by God,” boomed several hundred men standing in long rows, some crying softly.
They prayed before the bodies of three young men who died in Thursday’s offensive against pro-Gadhafi soldiers. The thin faces encircled by white shrouds were young.
“One of them was my friend. I studied with him for two years in Malta. This is the biggest loss for me,” said Nadar, a fellow rebel.
“They are all under 30,” said another man who recently arrived from Tripoli. “But all of this is for freedom,” he said.
Nalut has just gained its freedom from four months of almost nightly rocket fire. Gadhafi’s troops had used villages in the valley beneath Nalut to lob deadly Soviet-era Grad missiles into the town and toward the border with Tunisia. Victory was sweet.
After less than a day’s fighting, rebel fighters pushed Gadhafi’s troops out of two cities and a handful of hamlets. The commanding officer in Nalut attributed their success to good planning and the cooperation of rebel fighters from several mountain cities. Rebels mounted a simultaneous attack on Gadhafi forces from several different directions.
The commanding officer saw the latest operation as a blueprint for success, but one to be improved and refined. “Next time it will be much better,” he promised. He recalled with a smile, “We had only 20 hunting rifles made in Nalut in our first battle.”
Thursday’s battle showed just how far they had come. Rebels used sophisticated artillery, captured from Gadhafi’s weapons stores, against his loyalists. They loaded missile after missile into Grad rocket launchers and fired at government forces in the valley below. Seized T 55 Russian tanks took turns blasting enemy positions.
Although the primary complaint of military and civilian leaders throughout the region has been shortage of weapons, fighters seemed to have no lack of artillery shells in Thursday’s battle.
Late into the night on Thursday, young men fired automatic weapons into the air in celebration.
Women, rarely seen outside the home, marched through town and cars screeched through the otherwise orderly streets. Families that had fled Nalut for the safety of Tunisia began to flood back across the border to their now-safe city on Friday.
The latest rebel advance secured Nalut, but has it moved the rebels any closer to the ultimate goal, Tripoli and the overthrow of Gadhafi?
The answer is a qualified “yes.” Rebels have achieved some critical strategic aims.
They have now secured their border with Tunisia and the only supply line for fighters and civilians alike in the arid hills and plains of western Libya. The rout of enemy forces from the border area is part of a broader plan to allow rebels to push up through the desert to Zawiyah, cutting the regime off from its western supply line, and bringing them within a half-hour drive to Tripoli.
Newly victorious rebel fighters are already working their way up north. Whether success can be duplicated in the critical city of Garyan, Tripoli’s supply line to weapons and mercenaries from the south, remains to be seen.
Attempts to advance appear to be stalemated to the untrained eye. But military commanders suggest plans are in place and an offensive, possibly an all-out offensive, is imminent. “Zero hour” has not been determined yet, an officer in Zintan said.
Although weapons are said to be in short supply, optimism and determination are not.
When asked if rebels can reach Tripoli before the end of Ramadan, the minister of defense, Omar Hariri, responded, “Maybe before Ramadan.” The Muslim month of fasting begins next week.