Hundreds of Libyans marched down a street in rebel-held Benghazi as people leaned out of their balconies cheering, saluting recruits to the rebel forces that have driven Muammar Qaddafi’s loyalists from large swathes of the country.
The men “are ready to do their utmost,” said Jamal Mohamed, a medical worker and volunteer leader of the group.
Thousands of men in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city and the heart of the rebellion, have been volunteering to fight, part of a rebel drive to build up an army that can counter the Libyan leader’s forces as the anti-government campaign shifts from the streets to the battlefield.
Libya’s military, which received the lowest funding as a percentage of gross domestic product in the region in the three years through 2008, had 50,000 men, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The military split as anti-government forces gained strength, with many soldiers and officers defecting to the rebels and taking their weapons with them. The opposition claims Qaddafi has bolstered his forces with mercenaries from Chad, Somalia, Niger and Mali, although his son, Saif, denied that in an interview on Al Jazeera.
The insurgents have pushed Qaddafi’s army from much of the country’s east and were advancing toward his hometown of Sirte. A spokesman for the opposition forces, Abdullah al-Mahdi, said 6,000 people have died since the uprising began in mid-February. The United Nations estimated that 1,000 people were killed as of February 26.
In the Garyounes neighborhood, a 15-minute drive from the center of the city, groups of young men gathered in a military camp for training.
Mustafa El Sagezli, deputy head of the camp, ordered the men to line up. They obeyed, shouting “Allah Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.”
Most of the men received paramilitary training during high school or university and the training is mostly to refresh their memories, Sagezli said. He estimated that there are about 10 such camps across the eastern cities which feed new fighters to the rebel forces.
“We are always in touch with frontline fighters and they tell us how many people are needed,” Sagezli said. “ The units are usually made up of four or five people so that makes it easy for them to move.”
New recruits receive about a week of training before heading to the front lines, said Abdel Motteleb Saleh, a former army trainer under the Libyan leader who now instructs the rebels.
In the camp, recruits train with assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades that were either captured in battle or handed over by defecting soldiers or by civilians.
“We collect the weapons that are in the possession of the people of Benghazi and then we redistribute them to the camps that train the free Libyan youth,” former General Rajab Al Fetouri said. “The youth and the citizens, old and young, have been very cooperative in handing in their weapons so far.”
Ahmed Sahly, a 25-year-old communications engineer from Benghazi, said he came to the training station to “liberate Libya from traitors and mercenaries.”
“Any Libyan man would have done the same,” he said.