NEAR BREGA, Libya (Reuters) - Libya’s rebels said on Wednesday they were on the verge of capturing the coastal oil town of Brega, in what could be a decisive step towards unlocking the country’s oil wealth and forcing out Muammar Gaddafi.
“This is the most important place for the oil,” rebel field commander Faraj Moftahi told Reuters behind the frontline, which runs through sand dunes topped with scrub to the east of Brega.
From a hill overlooking a turquoise Mediterranean, rebel artillery shells could be seen sending up clouds of dust and smoke on the town’s northern edge. Gaddafi’s forces responded with an occasional shell or rocket.
Moftahi said his men had already ventured briefly into the town and he hoped to move in force in the next day or so.
NATO aircraft have been helping the rebels, attacking Gaddafi’s forces around Brega almost every day, and Moftahi said the advance would have to be coordinated with the alliance.
Once they had captured the town, the rebels would need to push on, however, because the port and oil terminal are about 15 km (10 miles) to the west of the town.
“It’s a very important step for our forces... we’ll take it and go on to Misrata,” he said, referring to a rebel-held town further west along the coast.
OPEC member Libya is the third-largest oil producer in Africa and holds the continent’s largest crude oil reserves. It produced 1.6 million barrels of oil a day before the uprising against Gaddafi’s 41-year-rule erupted in February.
Brega is one of several oil terminals now lying idle on the coast.
Near the rebel-held eastern town of Ajdabiya, regional commander Fawzi Bukatif ran his hand over a map, pointing to a web of pipelines running from the central desert to the coast.
“After we get Brega they will have nowhere to make a stand,” he said of Gaddafi’s forces. “It will be easy to clear this area. This is half the country: the oil is between the east and the middle.”
Bukatif said he hoped oil production could resume quickly once the area was secured: “It just needs the specialists to see what’s needed.”
The battle for Brega has been grinding on for weeks as the rebels make tentative pushes through the approaches to the town, which Gaddafi’s forces have strewn with land mines.
Morale among the rebels seems high and Bukatif said they were advancing methodically, trying to avoid heavy casualties.
“We are actually surrounding the city and using our artillery to empty it,” he said. “There’s no point to jump in and take everything with great loss.”
A few kilometres behind the front, some rebels were escaping the sun in a shelter made out of empty missile crates for a nearby multiple-rocket launcher.
“Thank you America,” a fighter with a wide grin and a thumbs-up told a visitor.
The rockets were seized from Gaddafi’s arsenal after the uprising began. Stamps on the crates showed they came from North Korea and were marked “Parts for bulldozer”.