TAMZIN, Libya (Reuters) - The rebels said it would be easy: roll in, block the road, raise the flag — another village under their writ in Libya’s Western Mountains.
The villagers are with us, the rebels said of their fellow Berbers — an ethnic minority that rose up against Muammar Gaddafi at the very start of the rebellion in February.
“Only a few support Gaddafi, maybe five or six,” said Omar, commander of the rebel unit from the nearby town of Kabaw.
His call-sign was Rambo. But the operation, which began on Sunday afternoon with the rebels gathering over coffee at a roadside cafe, ended an hour later in angry confrontation, tense retreat and a lesson in the divided loyalties and half-truths of this particular theatre of Libya’s conflict.
“Only seven or eight people here don’t like Gaddafi,” Mohammed, a resident of Tamzin, quietly told a reporter.
The truth probably lay somewhere in the middle, like Tamzin itself and dozens of other towns and villages wedged between the rebels who hold most of the plateau and forces loyal to Gaddafi mainly in the desert plains.
The rebels control a road running more than 200 kilometres across the top of the mountain range from the border with Tunisia, the war’s western front.
They wanted to close an adjoining artery that cuts through Tamzin and down the mountainside to a town where pro-Gaddafi forces and their artillery are positioned, some 20 kilometres further on.
The road was a security threat, they said, and arrived heavily armed in a convoy of around a dozen pick-up trucks, young rebels wrapped in the flag of the uprising.
The Berber of the Western Mountains were among the first to hoist the rebel colours, seeing a chance to reassert an identity denied them under Gaddafi.
But the Kabaw rebels were met by angry, unarmed Tamzin villagers, who, though ethnic kin, also happen to shop in the Gaddafi-held town in the plains, which, unlike the choked plateau, has an open route for goods from Tripoli.
“This is the main road for us,” said a man who gave his name as Ali. “Food comes through it. If you close it off, we’ll die here.”
Others appeared offended by the rebels, with their mud-smeared trucks and casual weapons-handling. “Why are they coming to my town with guns?” asked Mohammed, who said he worked for an oil company in Tripoli.
“There are families here. I like my life, I like Gaddafi.”
A few of the Libyan leader’s green flags were flying from pylons. Rebels said the Tamzin villagers were scared of the pro-Gaddafi forces such a short distance away.
But allegiances are not always easy to discern in the Western Mountains, with sometimes fatal consequences.
When rebels in Zintan, at the far eastern edge of the rebel-held strip, tried to cut off a road used by pro-Gaddafi forces near the village of Ryayna earlier this month, a shooting match erupted in which at least six rebels died.
A commander blamed Gaddafi army snipers, but other rebels spoke of a clash with pro-Gaddafi villagers of a different tribe, enraged by the intrusion. Ryayna’s loyalties remain the subject of much speculation in Zintan.
It is a question that may weigh heavily on this region once the war is over and the winners hold the losers to account.
The rebels said they would return to Tamzin within two days.
“I told them, ‘You are either with Gaddafi or with the rebels’,” the commander, Omar, said after the retreat. “It’s black or white, no grey.”
Editing by Louise Ireland and Jan Harvey