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Libyan rebels watch outskirts of possible tribal haven for Gadhafi
MISRATA, Libya (AP) ' A flash of sunlight reflecting off a distant windshield heralded the approach of a vehicle across the endless Libyan desert. So the rebel truck slammed into reverse, taking cover behind a sandy hill and swiveling its heavy machinegun to take aim at whatever was coming.
It was the only vehicle on the deserted highway coming from Bani Walid, one of the few Libyan towns the rebels don't control and a possible hiding place of deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Backed by NATO airstrikes, rebel fighters have been pushing in recent days toward three key targets: Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, the southern city of Sabha and Bani Walid, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
With roads connecting it to Tripoli, Misrata and other key coastal cities, as well as links to the deep southern deserts, Bani Walid was an obvious haven for regime loyalists escaping Tripoli after rebel forces swept into the capital on Aug. 20.
While the rebels have said they will wait more than a week to assault the three pro-Gadhafi bastions ' hoping for surrenders instead of more bloodshed ' Misrata-based rebel patrols still head daily into the scrub-filled desert to keep an eye on Gadhafi's remaining forces.
The civilians were long gone. Anyone planning to flee had already done so. With regular skirmishes in the area, the patrol knew the other vehicle could be carrying pro-Gadhafi fighters.
The approaching vehicle, however, turned out to be friendly ' another rebel pickup that had gone even further toward Bani Walid.
That patrol reported little loyalist activity, though the burned-out trucks, shell casings of all sizes and shattered buildings in the desert spoke of months' worth of past battles.
After a grueling four-month siege at the hands of government forces, Misrata's rebels have a score to settle with Gadhafi. They also have a nearly century-old grudge with the town of Bani Walid.
During the 1915 war against the Italian colonial rulers, a Misratan rebel commander named Ramadan al-Sweihy was betrayed and then killed by the tribesmen of Bani Walid, who were taking money from the Italians.
Misratans have never forgotten this betrayal.
"My grandfather used to tell me this story," said Marwan Tantoun, a 22-year-old rebel. "In Bani Walid, they are afraid of everyone. They are afraid of Gadhafi."
In a Thursday audio message, Gadhafi taunted the rebels and said the tribes of Sirte, including his own Gadhadhafa and the Warfala of Bani Walid, would fight to the death. "The battle will be long," he promised.
In the waning months of his weakening regime, Gadhafi warned the rebels that he had the support of Libya's tribes, and especially the Warfala, which may have up to a million members across the country.
But much of that support never materialized.
When Gadhafi seized power 42 years ago, he espoused a progressive brand of Arab nationalism, but he soon had to fall back on the country's tribal network to support his regime, lavishing money and perks on their leaders.
So while Gadhafi does have some genuine support, the situation is often far from clear ' even in loyalist towns.
"There are people with us (in Bani Walid), and some are half with us, and some are with Gadhafi because they take money from him," Tantoun said.
The Warafala's support for Gadhafi has never been unconditional. In 1993, he uncovered a plot to assassinate him by 55 Warfala army officers. For years afterward, Bani Walid was in official disfavor.
At a frontline rebel camp, a deputy rebel commander dismissed the town and its inhabitants altogether.
"Bani Walid doesn't matter, they are weak," Ahmed Belhaj said. "Everyone there is a Gadhafi supporter ' 99.9 percent." He expected the city to collapse as soon as Sirte was taken.
Now, though, Bani Walid may well find itself in the sights of the massing troops ' especially the Misratan rebels returning from their conquest of Tripoli.
"I would prefer to go after Sirte," admitted Mohammed bin Saleh, a rebel at Misrata's defensive line. There was too much history, and too much bad blood between Misrata and Bani Walid, he said. Fighting Bani Walid seemed almost unprofessional. Finally, he summed it up: "It's a tribal thing."
Bin Saleh was at Camp 46, one of a string of outposts nestled in sand dunes about 20 miles (30 kilometers) outside Misrata, where rebels await the order to advance and keep watch over the desert.
It's a comfortable spot, with palm frond huts, a volleyball net and a diminutive soccer field. There's even a generator powering a satellite dish, and a television showing Egyptian movies.
A shipping container, partially buried in the sand and used as a bunker, was a reminder of when these positions were constantly shelled during the city's siege earlier this year, as Gadhafi tried to crush the Misrata rebels.
After the meeting in no-man's land, the two rebel trucks continued their patrols together, past a wrecked army base conquered by the rebels two weeks earlier and filled with empty ammunition boxes.
At a remote crossroads just 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Bani Walid, the patrol rested at an empty mosque. The walls were marked by grapefruit-sized holes left by heavy weapons. Shell casings littered the ground.
Inside the buildings were abandoned Libyan army uniforms, combat boots and desiccated piles of onions and potatoes left from a never-finished meal.
Bin Saleh, the rebel, said the outskirts of Bani Walid were less than 20 miles (30 kilometers) away. But after a short rest, the patrol packed up and returned to their base.
That final journey ' the assault on Bani Walid ' would have to wait for another time.