Archive for August 2011
Six months ago Mehdi al-Harati, an Arabic teacher, said goodbye to his wife and four children in Dublin and went off to war. Last week I was alongside him and his men — many of them from Britain — as they prepared to storm the Bastille of the Libyan revolution.
In quick succession both he and I were hit by snipers’ bullets, but we survived and raced on towards Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s heavily fortified palace in central Tripoli.
The high walls of the Bab al-Aziziya compound embodied the 42 years of oppression that Gadaffi had inflicted on his country.
“Sheikh” Mehdi’s 350-strong brigade of Libyan exiles, buzzing with the accents of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, were determined to be the first insurgents to breach the walls as the regime tottered last week.
The Tripoli Brigade, as they called themselves, had trained for four months in Libya’s western mountains with French, American and Qatari special forces for this moment.
I watched the brown-bearded rebel commander — a compact and strong figure but also a diabetic with a heart problem — sprint up a narrow alleyway under heavy sniper fire, waving his men forwards. As the 38-year-old raced towards a watchtower guarding the compound’s entrance, a bullet smashed into his ankle, knocking him to the ground.
Picking himself up, Mehdi ducked into a side street. His fighters crowded round him, screaming over the radio for an ambulance to come forward from behind the rebel front line. Word quickly spread among the rebel ranks, deflating morale.
The medics sped through the streets, braving barrages of gunfire. They wound a bandage around Mehdi’s ankle and told him to stay back. But within half an hour he was back on the front line where his men could see him alive and fighting again.
As he barked commands over his radio on the opposite side of the road, a bullet smacked into my helmet, sending me flying into the dirt. I checked for blood and was surprised to find none.
Soon afterwards another bullet knocked the camera out of the hands of Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photographer. He was also unhurt. We were lucky. But for the Libyans, the battle for Bab al-Aziziya was going to be brutal.
The bullet clanged into my helmet, smacking the Kevlar into the left side of my skull and throwing me to the ground.
The shock of being floored by something I couldn’t see confused me: it took a few seconds to realise I’d been hit in the head. I could hear a metallic ringing in my ears.
My first thoughts were: “I’m still alive but I’m dying, slowly bleeding out; my brains must be on the floor. Perhaps the bullet only went through a bit of my head and that’s why I can see and think.”
The image of a messy puddle of brain matter next to me flashed through my mind. These thoughts were quickly replaced with the realisation that I couldn’t feel any pain, apart from a thumping headache that I’d had all day from having only one contact lens. My next thought was that I was still thinking. My brain was still working.
That thought was quickly replaced with another one: “Perhaps this is what happens when you die.”
I ran both my hands inside my helmet, checking for blood and praying I wouldn’t find any. This was tricky because the chin strap was so tight that I couldn’t get my hands all the way inside.
It took a few more swipes to confirm that I wasn’t bleeding from my skull and that my brains weren’t in the sand: my hands were covered in black grit and dirt.
No blood. Good. The fear of dying, followed by the elation of being alive, made me forget where I was for a moment. Then I looked up to see a Libyan rebel gaping at me, frozen to the spot in shock.
Other rebels had fled when they saw the round hit me. I could see their feet racing away as I lay there.
I realised I needed to get up. Bullets were still flying overhead; splashes of dirt kicked up around me. I dragged myself up and ran towards cover, racing around the corner of a building, where I leant against a wall, trying to get my breath back.
I took my helmet off and checked my head again for blood. Nothing. Rebel fighters lined up against a wall on the opposite side of the alleyway looked on impassively.
It was my fault. The Sunday Times photographer, Paul Conroy, and I had been crouching down behind a red gate on the side of a road leading towards Colonel Gadaffi’s palace.
We’d seen machinegun fire pummel the gate 30 minutes earlier. The bullets had ripped fist-sized holes in the thin metal. But rebel soldiers had made mad dashes through the now open gate, racing across the road to the relative safety of a mosque opposite.
We moved from our position, attaching ourselves to another band of rebels preparing to make the dash. We paused at the gate.
Rebel pick-up trucks drove up the road from our right, blasting deafening barrages of anti-aircraft fire from their mounted guns at Gadaffi’s palace. The trucks were still taking small arms fire, sending rounds pinging down the road.
“I’ll go first and you follow,” said Paul. I nodded. Paul timed his sprint to coincide with the next barrage of anti-aircraft fire, which he hoped would pin down the Gadaffi shooters long enough for him to race to the mosque. As he made cover, the rebel 4ft behind him had his arm blown off by a bullet.
I knew the gate was poor cover. I got up to make the sprint but a group of rebels dashed out ahead of me.
I didn’t want to be the last man in the group, fearing that Gadaffi’s snipers may have honed their aim by the time they saw me sprinting. So I watched a few rebel pick-up trucks race by and waited for the incoming rounds to die down. Another group of rebels joined me by the gate.
That’s when the bullet knocked me to the floor. It must have pierced the gate to my left, slowing down the round just enough to prevent it from passing through the Kevlar and into my skull.
Paul didn’t see me get hit: he was too busy treating the rebel whose arm had been blown off.
He found me smoking a cigarette and drinking water on the curb, talking to a rebel in a pink T-shirt who was trying to persuade me to go to an ambulance around the corner.
“What happened to you?” Paul asked.
“I got shot in the head,” I replied, grinning stupidly.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Okay, well get up and stop whingeing,” he laughed.
We found more water in the mosque, glugged it down and went back up to the road. This time we took a left before the gate and sprinted over rubble and past a destroyed house to cover.
We continued pushing into Gadaffi’s compound with the rebels. About an hour later, a bullet hit Paul’s camera and sent it flying from his hands.
As we came out of the palace, we bumped into Reuters correspondent Peter Graff. “You work for a Sunday Miles. What the hell are you doing getting shot in the head on a Tuesday?” He said.
Back at base that night, Paul dug the bullet out of my helmet with his knife. The round had gone in at an angle — another reason why it had failed to pierce the armour.
Paul tried to persuade me to give him the helmet. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice. You’re 20m times less likely to be hit in the head after that. So statistically it’s better for me to have the helmet,” he said.
This comes from the same man who later reasoned that the chances of discovering a bomb on a plane are about fifteen million to one; the chances of having two bombs on a plane are about 75 million to one; so therefore statistically it’s five times safer to bring you’re own bomb onto a plane because the chances of two people carrying a bomb onto a plane are pretty thin.
I ignored his twisted logic; I’m keeping the helmet.
The sniper’s bullet sliced into Musab Shawish’s thigh as the rebel fighter rammed another magazine clip into his assault rifle. The 26-year-old student crumpled to the ground among the empty bullet casings strewn across the rebel-controlled road junction in the centre of Zawiya.
Still able to move despite his wound, Shawish rolled quickly out of the sniper’s line of fire. A group of fighters huddled on the pavement against the crumbling wall of a shuttered shop swarmed to Shawish’s rescue, dragging the stocky fighter away from the front line by his arms and legs, through an alleyway and towards an ambulance parked behind a nearby building.
“You better kick Muammar Gadaffi’s arse for me,” Shawish shouted as he was loaded onto a stretcher and shoved into the back of the ambulance.
As the rear doors slammed shut, Shawish, lying on his back, raised two fingers in a victory salute.
For the past week, rebels vying for control of the strategically important oil town of Zawiya have slogged it out with Gadaffi’s troops in heavy street-to-street fighting.
The rebels’ advance into Zawiya coincides with several assaults on towns to the east and west of Tripoli, giving their motley forces a stranglehold on the Libyan capital. Rebels said yesterday that they had captured the town of Zlitan, east of Tripoli.
Last night crowds of anti-government protesters were on the streets of Tripoli as gunfire and explosions shook the capital. Nato ran a series of bombing raids in the early hours in co-ordination with the rebels on the ground.
Residents received text messages from the government urging them to fight “armed agents” as the struggle for the capital took on a new urgency.
Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the National Transition Council in Benghazi, said: “The zero hour has started. The rebels in Tripoli have risen up. There is co-ordination with the rebels from the east, west and south. The next hours are crucial. Many of the [pro-Gadaffi] brigades have fled.”
Residents of Zawiya, an oil town, which lies only 30 miles west of Tripoli along the coastal highway, flocked to the freshly captured main square on Friday night, chanting: “Oh, youth of Zawiya, you have made it a bright night.”
Abdul Rahman, 45, a former Libyan army officer who lives in Manchester but is fighting with the rebels, said: “Once we have Zawiya under full control, we will march on Tripoli.”
Zawiya was one of the first towns to rise up against Gadaffi when the Libyan revolt began in mid-February. The protests were crushed by the regime’s forces, who bulldozed over the graves of fighters in the main square before razing a mosque that the rebels had used as a makeshift hospital.
Last week, with support from rebel artillery sent from the western mountains, anti-Gadaffi fighters entered Zawiya. The fighting has been fierce: doctors estimate that more than 100 rebels have been killed by mortar, rocket and sniper fire since the battle erupted. Read the rest of this entry »
A Taliban fighter has given the first account of how his unit fired two “opportunist” rocket-propelled grenades that brought down a Chinook helicopter, killing 38 elite American and Afghan troops in the deadliest attack of Nato’s 10-year campaign.
The special forces, some from the unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, had flown into a remote valley to kill a group of Taliban commanders who were sheltering in the Sayedabad district of Wardak province, according to the fighter.
The dead, identified last week by a special forensic team at Dover air force base in Delaware, included 17 Navy Seals — some from Team 6, the unit that killed Bin Laden — five other navy special forces, three air force special forces and five crew. Seven Afghan commandos and an interpreter were also on board.
The helicopter was shot down as it came in to land close to where two Taliban had taken up sentry positions in the Tangi Valley, the fighter, whose nom de guerre is Haqiar, said. His account largely tallies with Nato’s version of events.
Haqiar, 24, who claims to be the only surviving member of the team that shot down the helicopter, said fighters were already on high alert because they had seen many US drones patrolling during the day.
They observed Iftar — the Islamic custom of breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan — and as soon as they had finished their meal, Haqiar and his comrade, Gulam Hazrat, took up guard duties in a ditch beside a terraced field overlooking the valley.
At about 11pm, a radio message from Haqiar’s commander, Mullah Mohibullah, told them American forces had just killed six Taliban fighters further down the valley in the village of Qarya-e-Amir. “We knew something big was going to happen,” he said.
An hour later, Haqiar and Hazrat heard a helicopter approaching and saw it silhouetted against the moon.
The Chinook was coming in to land about 100 yards from their position, escorted by two attack helicopters. The pilot appeared to be heading for a site between two mosques in the valley below their position, Haqiar said.
“The Americans knew that the mosques and the surrounding fields and gardens had lots of Taliban commanders sleeping there,” said Haqiar.
As the Chinook reached eye-level, he wanted to ask his commander for permission to fire because he knew the shot would give away his position. But Hazrat launched the rocketpropelled grenade (RPG) before Haqiar could reach his radio.
“He fired and it landed inside the chopper and exploded. I fired one and it hit the nose of the bird. The chopper lost balance and fell to the ground on its side and rolled. There was a huge explosion and we could see into the back of the Chinook and we saw the inside was on fire,” said Haqiar.
Nato later said the helicopter took fire from several insurgent positions as it made its approach.
The flames spread through the helicopter and quickly ignited the ammunition on board, sending sparks shooting into the night sky, Haqiar said.
“We could hear the bullets exploding till the next day. The flames lit up the valley. Suddenly it was so light,” he said.
The two fighters turned on their radios to inform their commander that they had shot down the helicopter and began to flee with other Taliban. They dropped their weapons and ran through fields.
“I kept looking over my shoulder. The helicopter was still on fire and the other choppers couldn’t do anything to help them,” said Haqiar.
Before sunrise, more American soldiers arrived in the valley along with three medical evacuation helicopters, according to Haqiar.
The troops began to search houses, bazaars and fields in the valley, but Haqiar and a few of his men had already escaped. Hazrat fled to the neighbouring district of Chak, where he prepared to flee the country with other insurgents.
Haqiar’s version of events agrees with Nato’s and he denied an Afghan report that the Taliban had deliberately lured the Chinook into the valley. He said high-level Taliban commanders from other provinces had convened in the valley, which they use as a staging post for attacks in the surrounding provinces.
Nato said later that American special forces had flown into the valley to pursue a group of insurgents fleeing from the area where US troops had just killed the six Taliban fighters.
The insurgents belonged to a network previously under the command of Mohibullah’s boss, Din Mohammed, who had been killed in an earlier special forces operation.
General John Allen, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, said: “The intelligence that had been generated to this point led us to believe there was an enemy network in the Tangi Valley and the purpose of this mission was to go after the leadership of that network.”
Days after the crash, the Americans used local intelligence to track Hazrat and Mohibullah to a wooded area in the district. A strike by an American F-16 fighter jet killed both men along with several Taliban comrades.
“The two men were attempting to flee the country,” said a Nato spokesman.
Haqiar escaped to the village of Hassan Khel to “relax and pray”, he said. “When we heard that this was the group of special forces who killed Bin Laden we were so happy and proud. We didn’t know the infidels on board were so special.
“Before, we believed we couldn’t shoot down the choppers with our weapons. They used to say the air pressure would destroy our RPGs before they could hit their target. Now we know we can do it. We will train others to do the same.”
Haqiar is now on the run. He intends to flee to Pakistan or Iran. The Sunday Times tracked down the fighter, who was extremely nervous about being recorded on tape, via an intermediary from the same district. The interview was conducted near Kabul. He said he wanted to tell the world about the attack, which he said had “made all Muslims proud”.
Additional reporting: Lalage Snow