New York Times confirms NATO is supplying and aiding to supply weapons to Misurata.
Sealift Extends Lifeline to a Rebel City in Libya
Published: May 22, 2011
ABOARD AL IRADAH 6 — Near midnight, in the darkness of the deliberately unlit Misurata harbor, the tugboat’s crew loosened its lines from the pier and pulled them aboard.
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
C.J. Chivers/The New York Times.
The helmsman engaged Al Iradah 6’s dual engines and it spun into the basin, gathered speed and headed for the gap in the jetties. A few miles beyond, outside the range of Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi’s artillery, was the safety of the open sea.
There, the helmsman turned the round bow eastward, toward Benghazi, the Libyan rebel capital about 300 miles away. The latest leg for an unlikely smuggling vessel was complete. In a little more than 24 hours, Al Iradah 6 would reach rebel-controlled territory and line up for a fresh cargo of medicine, food and guns — fuel for a city besieged.
There have been many reasons for the rebels’ success in Misurata, where they recently drove the Qaddafi forces out of the city and seized the airport. One of them is this: a determined and surreptitious sealift by a small fleet of Libyan boats.
Combining the talents of those who procure a city’s wartime needs with those of merchant mariners and fishermen, rebels have organized about two dozen fishing vessels and former Qaddafi-controlled tugboats into an impromptu fleet that has provided Misurata with a lifeline of supplies. The fleet sails with NATO’s approval and support. (Rebels and organizers in both Benghazi and Misurata spoke openly of the smuggling effort, but asked that certain locations and shipping schedules not be disclosed.)
At a basic level, it has assumed missions of both mercy and war. The mixed cargo — baby formula and medicine beside crates of ammunition — has helped civilians survive and equipped Misurata for its fight.
The strategic significance of Misurata has not been lost on the crew of Al Iradah 6. For months, rebels trapped in the city, 130 miles from Tripoli, provided Libya’s opposition movement with a powerful argument against any discussion of the war’s end that called for national partition.
As long as Misurata’s armed men held on to their city, the nation’s third largest, the Qaddafi government could never credibly say that the war was a contest between east and west, and propose that the country, divided by history and tribal allegiances, be split.
These were among the political and human motivations for many sailors who chose to join the rebels’ war effort. Outside the harbor, the captain of Al Iradah 6, Saif Nasser, said something else propelled him, too — the sense of self-respect and self-determination that came with rising up.
“Qaddafi thought the people are not strong,” the captain said. “For more than 40 years we were his prisoners, and he thought we are like animals. But now he has found that we are very strong people.”
The scenes aboard Al Iradah 6, which completed a round-trip voyage earlier this month, captured the mix of planning, security, passion and energy that has characterized the effort.
Al Iradah 6, an 85-foot vessel assembled in Libya with Damen Shipyards of the Netherlands, is yet another of the Qaddafi government’s procurements that rebels have put to use to try to push Colonel Qaddafi from power. In excellent condition and equipped with modern marine electronics and safety gear — the sort of harbor vessel an oil state could afford — it has been in rebel service since March.
After its arrival late in the afternoon, its wartime cargo was unloaded by rebels who materialized from Misurata.
Working quickly, sometimes chanting and singing, they carried off medicine, baby formula, food, recoilless-rifle ammunition, machine-gun cartridges and Kalashnikov and Belgian-made FN FAL rifles. Spare machine-gun barrels were visible, too.
The captain disappeared briefly to confer with the harbor authorities. The tug had entered the harbor unchallenged. But Misurata’s port had been shelled repeatedly in previous weeks and mined at least twice. He opted to wait for nightfall to slip back to sea.
By now, the Qaddafi forces arrayed to Misurata’s southeast almost certainly knew that the tug was in the harbor, and their artillery observers might be waiting for Captain Nasser to leave. Better to head back at night, running lights switched off.
After darkness, a second tug, the Saladin, steamed into port. Its cargo was stacked high on its aft deck and under tarps. Al Iradah’s crew stood at the rails and called out into the night. “You are here! Welcome!” they shouted. “God is great!” The Saladin tied off nearby. A fresh scrum of pickup trucks full of rebels arrived at the pier. The unloading began.
Soon Al Iradah 6 returned to sea. As it left the harbor it radioed ahead to NATO warships beyond the horizon, to request permission to pass through their blockade.
“The sea and sky?” Captain Nasser said. “Nothing crosses without permission from NATO.”