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Libya's rebels, pushing toward Gadhafi stronghold, learn to patrol in loyalist territory
HEISHA, Libya (AP) ' The rebels roared along the bleak and empty desert highway, leaving the last checkpoint far behind as they probed the no-man's-land that separates them from the final stronghold of Moammar Gadhafi's crumbling regime.
Stopping in Heisha, some 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, the patrol found a dusty collection of single-story, concrete buildings that stretched from the highway to the desert.
They also found the green flags of Gadhafi flying everywhere and at least one poster of the long-serving leader ' a sign that the town still supported the old regime, or at least that its forces had recently been there.
"There used to be people here supporting the regime, but they have left," Ali Mabrouk stammered on Tuesday, after the rebels stopped outside his house to ask how things were going.
"Life is hard here, there are shortages of milk, electricity and food," the old man continued, as his family spilled out of the house behind him to eye the rebel trucks bristling with weapons. "We're just trying to live."
As rebels forces have inched closer to Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and the seat of his tribe, they have been sending patrols into the villages ahead of their front lines to probe the loyalists' strength and establish a presence along the coastal highway.
While the rebels have captured broad swaths of Libya, the loyalists who still control Sirte have rebuffed all negotiations. For most of the six-month conflict, the rebels have been greeted with open arms by Libyans exhausted with 42 years of Gadhafi's erratic rule. But that changes in places like this, edging closer to towns where Gadhafi had genuine support.
"We patrol here to see if there are any Gadhafi supporters or remnants of his soldiers, which we would then fight," Mohammed Sherif said as he drove a spray-painted rebel pickup truck with a huge machine-gun bolted on the back. "Of course we would leave the civilians alone."
But that isn't a guarantee with all the rebels.
Sitting inside the pickup truck, Mohammed al-Awayib had little sympathy for the people of Heisha, now caught between two ragged armies. He muttered the word "dogs!" each time they passed someone on the street, and made spitting noises.
"They are not even human," he snarled. At one point, moving to fire his Kalashnikov assault rifle out the window, Sherif sharply told him to stop.
When al-Awayib stepped out of the car, Sherif apologized for him, saying his friend had lost a relative in Gadhafi's infamous Abu Salim prison.
But how such resentments play out remains a major factor in the Libyan fighting.
For most of the civil war, the loosely organized and poorly trained rebels have normally steered clear of looting ' except in places closely associated with Gadhafi's regime, such as in Tripoli's Abu Salim neighborhood.
Fear of ill-treatment by the rebels may well be why Sirte has shown little interest in surrendering.
Once a sleepy agricultural and trading town, Sirte was transformed under Gadhafi's rule as the regime handed out government jobs to his tribesman. But it really only came alive when Gadhafi hosted summit meetings in its luxurious convention center, with limousines and police cars racing down the road from the airport with sirens wailing.
Gadhafi's tribesmen have a vested interest in the regime's survival. The Gadhadhfa are heavily armed and use Sirte's air base as the headquarters of a militia drawn from their ranks.
If word was to spread of ill-treatment in towns like Heisha, rebel officials know it could further harden the people of Sirte against surrendering.
So the rebels are constantly shifting between aggression and diplomacy.
When Sherif's truck turned one corner in Heisha, the rebels saw dozens of villagers clad in pristine white robes milling around several other vehicles.
"Drive right up to those dogs," grumbled al-Awayib ' quickly realizing his mistake as angry shouting faces pressed against the truck's windows.
The villagers were furious at seeing journalists with cameras, and angry in general at the rebels' presence. Faced with so much animosity in the blazing midday sun, the rebels beat a hasty retreat.
Minutes later, the town elders drove up and began haranguing the patrol, yelling that rebels had sped through town firing guns the day before, and had conducted house-to-house searches.
"It is a question of respect! What about our women? What about our children?" shouted an enraged old man in resplendent white and brown embroidered desert robes.
He muttered darkly that if such behavior continued, the villagers would have to take security into their own hands.
All talk of "dogs" disappeared, and the young rebels, most in their 20s, struggled to placate the enraged patriarch.
Eventually the old man allowed himself to be mollified. He said that perhaps the misunderstanding was simply because everyone had been fasting for the holy month of Ramadan.
A crisis averted for now, the patrol retreated to the main highway and collapsed in the shade of a ruined building.