Libya: can Gaddafi fight back from Ghat?

The last loyalist stronghold in the Fezzan is a desert garrison town called Ghat. A fight-back might start here.

Unlikely as it might seem, perhaps Muammar Gaddafi's plan all along was to retreat to Ghat, then press back towards Tripoli from there. Close to the Algerian and Nigerien borders, the little town of 22,000 people is the final bastion of pro-Gaddafi loyalties. A convoy sped recently past this small town to the Nigerien capital of Niamey, reportedly carrying gold and Gaddafi regime and family members. Col. Gaddafi's son Saadi was rumoured to be one. More speculation surrounds the use of this gold to acquire arms and mercenaries for an impending fight-back.

Bar isolated pockets of resistance, the whole of Libya is now under National Transitional Council control, but so long as Gaddafi remains at large a government won't be formed, it seems.

Ghat, with a small airport, is a strategically located town. Its garrison was bolstered in the past by Gaddafi, evidently, to fight Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Now, can the Libyan ex-rebel forces of the National Liberation Army (NLA) wrestle control of it before sub-Saharan mercenaries and the purchased weaponry arrives?

It seems strange as to why Niger hasn't caught potential war-criminals in its midst to hand over to the international community. These men have to be taken to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to face justice. If the convoy merely slipped over the border unimpeded, Niger could be deemed to have been either negligent or complicit under international law, surely?

And what of Algeria, a country which harbours members of Gaddafi's family in its north? Ghat is close to its border, and Burkina Faso is accessed via a sandy trip across Algierian territory. Burkina Faso has in the past demonstrated fraternal relations with the Gaddafi regime which supplied it with its oil. The Libyan National Oil Corporation has retail petrol stations in Burkina, and the regime of President Blaise Compaoré was funded by Libyan oil largesse.

Compaoré has held power since 1987, and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika since 1999. These men have much in common with Gaddafi, and must fear the Arab revolution taking hold in Libya. A fight-back by pro-Gaddafi forces would not appear to be against their best interests, it could be argued.

Libya is vast, and NLA supply lines are long now the NTC's army has driven so deep into the Sahara. Perhaps a Gaddafi pincer movement is planned, with one column intent on securing Ghat, the other designed to cut off food, arms and NLA reinforcements. 

The realities of the NTC's challenge becomes no less stark when dimensions are considered: Ghat District is 72,700 sq km in area, or bigger than Sierra Leone, Ireland or West Virginia; and the distance from Ghat town to Sabha, the nearest large Libyan city is 552 km.

Whatever Gaddafi's strategy, his next move will be his final one inside Libyan territory. Unless he is afforded refuge by a neighbouring state, of course, when a subsequent return could be on the cards.

There's been speculation too that Gaddafi might form a rump regime based in the Fezzan. But he might view that as a poor end for a man who for so long was courted by presidents, kings and potentates.

From the NTC's point of view, this might prove to be the cornering of the rat. But when rats are cornered they're viscious, so farmers say.  Although Libya has made impressive strides, Col. Gaddafi's capture is only one of several thorny outstanding issues for the NTC.

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