Roman theatre ruins at Leptis Magna, in Libya. The World Heritage listed site is under threat from artillery fire in the current conflict.Source: Supplied
ONE of the greatest abandoned cities of the Ancient World is at risk of destruction after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces took over the ruins of Leptis Magna as a base for operations, rebel leaders claimed yesterday .
Rebel commanders in the city of Misrata said that Libyan government troops had moved Grad rockets and munitions into the World Heritage Site, on the coast between Misrata and Tripoli, to avoid NATO bombing.
“We received information yesterday that Gaddafi’s forces are hiding inside Leptis Magna,” said Abu Mohammad, the overall commander of rebel forces for the nearby town of Zlitan.
The commander, who is based in Misrata, declined to give his full name because Zlitan is still largely under the control of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces and fighters fear reprisals against their families.
Leptis Magna is one of the best preserved and most spectacular Roman ruins in the Mediterranean, with a theatre, baths, forums and numerous triumphal arches.
At its zenith, in 200BC, Leptis Magna was the third greatest Roman city in Africa after Alexandria and Carthage. It was also the birthplace of Emperor Lucius Septimus Severus.
Citing reports from a network of informants, the rebel commander claimed: “There are more than five Grad rocket-launcher trucks among the ruins. They are inside the old buildings because they know that NATO will never destroy the area.”
BM21 Grad rocket-launchers fire up to 40 rockets from tubes mounted on the back of a vehicle and have been used to deadly effect over recent days against Misrata.
The commander added that some of the vehicles were covered in tree branches to camouflage them. The branches are regularly replaced to maintain their green colouring. Rebel leaders also claimed that munitions, including hundreds of Grad rockets, were being stored by government forces amid the ruins.
“It wouldn’t be surprising if Gaddafi was storing missiles there,” an alliance source said. “He is actively storing all sorts of military equipment at schools, next to hospitals and in mosques, anywhere where it would be embarrassing for NATO if we were to hit these targets.”
Other rebel leaders reported that Gaddafi forces are using civilian areas to deter NATO air attacks. A commander named Ali, who cannot be named fully because his family remain in Zlitan, said: “In Zlitan there are government forces inside schools, the hospital and the summer camp.”
Leptis Magna is 15 miles from Zlitan, which is the target of an expected rebel push in the coming days. The Grad missiles will be able to hit rebel forces up to 20 miles away. A spokesman for the rebels in Misrata confirmed yesterday that part of Zlitan was under rebel control after local people rose against the government.
“They are surrounded by government forces and they are in danger now,” said Ibrahim al-Betalmal. It was reported that rebel fighters had advanced to within six miles of Zlitan yesterday as fighting continued along the front lines around Misrata.
A rebel spokesman said that their forces would seek to avoid damaging Leptis Magna. “This is not our mission, this is a mission for NATO,” said Mr al-Betalmal.
“For now we are far from Leptis Magna, we have not yet captured Zlitan, but our fighters would not fight inside Leptis Magna because these are historical buildings.”
The Libyan government denied yesterday that rebel forces were making headway towards the capital, Tripoli. Rebels have expressed deep frustration at the inability of NATO aircraft to find and target the military equipment.
Reporters who were taken to the town of Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, where fighting was reported on Saturday, saw quiet streets and the government flag flying over the main square. The insurgents claimed that a high-ranking Gaddafi leader had been badly injured in the fighting.
“The wishful reporting of some journalists that the rebels are gaining more power and more control of some areas is not correct,” said Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for Colonel Gaddafi.
There was a further boost to the rebels as the German Foreign Minister, on a visit to the rebel-held city of Benghazi, called the rebel Transitional National Council the “legitimate representative of the Libyan people”. Guido Westerwelle’s statement, which stops short of formal diplomatic recognition, matches the position adopted by the United States.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates became the latest Gulf state formally to recognise the rebels. The UAE gave the Libyan Ambassador in Abu Dhabi 72 hours to leave before the Transitional National Council took control of the building.
A new defection from the government was also reported. A spokesman for the Transitional National Council in London said that Sassi Garada, a close ally of the Libyan leader, had left Libya. Noman Benotman, a Libyan analyst based in London, said that Mr Garada had fled to Switzerland.
Last night it was reported that rebel forces trying to advance in the east of the country had run into a government ambush near the town of Brega. Twenty-three people were killed and 26 wounded, according to Suleiman Rafathi, a doctor at the main hospital in Ajdabiya.