MISRATA, Libya » The army and militias of Moammar Gadhafi, who for more than two months have fought rebels seeking to overthrow the Libyan leader, are undermined by self-serving officers, strained logistics and units hastily reinforced with untrained cadets, according to captured soldiers from their ranks.
In interviews this week in a rebel-run detention center where more than 100 prisoners from the Libyan military are housed, the prisoners described hardships in the field and officers who deceived or failed them. They spoke bitterly of their lot.
While some showed signs of mistreatment or of making statements to ingratiate themselves with their captors, the accounts of their logistical and tactical problems portrayed a Libyan force suffering from growing problems in a war that began as a mismatch, settled into stalemate and has recently shown signs of rebel advance.
On one hand, Libyan military units and militias went to war with clear material and organizational advantages, equipped with tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, rockets and vast stores of munitions. They arrived to battle with trained snipers and mortar, rocket and artillery crews.
On the other, the Libyan Defense Ministry thickened the ranks with veterans recalled to duty in poor physical condition and cadets with almost no combat training or experience
Then, after facing weeks of airstrikes and a growing rebel force, some of these units were cut off, prisoners said, and officers betrayed the rank-and-file.
"The commanders told us, ‘Stay here and we will be back with more ammunition,"’ said a cadet who claimed to have been pressed into service as an untrained infantryman last month and was assigned to the fight for this city’s center. "But they did not come back, and the rebels surrounded us and we had to put down our weapons and quit."
The prisoners’ identities, which were provided by the interviewees, have been withheld to protect them and their families from retaliation.
The cadet, who had a shaved head and slender hands protruding from a long black robe, described many forms of disappointment in the Gadhafi military. At the start of the war, he said, he was a second-year cadet and was told by his instructors that he must go serve.
His and his classmates’ first mission, he said, was to search vehicles and check identification cards at one of the country’s myriad checkpoints. There were 11 cadets at the gate of the town where he was assigned, he said.
"After a while they came and said 11 at the gate is too much," he said. "And they took six of us and gave us Kalashnikovs and took us into Misrata."
That was in April, when Misrata was the center of Libya’s most pitched fight, a block-by-block contest that cost the lives of hundreds of men on both sides.
Inside the city, he said, he found he was in an unknown neighborhood, hidden with others in an apartment building as rebel fighters pressed near and the Libyan army’s lines of logistics were slowly but persistently severed behind them.
Other prisoners described constant deception by their officers.
One prisoner, a member of the 32 Reinforced Brigade of Armed People, a unit often called elite and which is led by Khamis Gadhafi, one of Gadhafi’s sons, said he was the third contingent of the brigade to be sent from Tripoli to Misrata.
The third group was sent, he said, after the first two suffered heavy casualties.
He was assigned to the insurance building, a tall office complex that gained notoriety among rebels for the snipers who watched over the streets from its many windows.
The captured soldier, scarred on the hand and wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt that read, "King of the Town," said his officers lied to him throughout, telling him he had been sent to put down a foreign-inspired jihad.
"When we came here we heard the fighters shouting all the time, ‘Allahu Akbar!,"’ he said. "The officers told us the enemy was al-Qaida and other terror groups from Syria and Tunisia. But we saw that they were Libyans."
The soldier said that he had not put on the uniform to kill Libyans, and, after listening to Gadhafi mortar crews shell the city with cluster munitions, he slipped out of the building and hid in a shop. There he waited, he said, until he heard rebels nearby. Then he surrendered, turning over his rifle and two grenades.
Other prisoners described being summoned back to duty after leaving the army two years ago, and finding once they went to battle that there were delays in evacuating the army’s wounded.
One man said that in the fight for Benghazi Street, one of the city’s former fronts, three of his friends were killed and three were wounded. The wounded, he said, were bandaged and waited three or four days for a ride out.
The detention center that serves as these prisoners’ current home was, until recent weeks, one of Misrata’s public schools. The prisoners live in classrooms, in groups of 15 or 20. The school has running water, and part of its courtyard is a kitchen, where the prisoners cook for themselves.
The prisoners sleep on mattresses and have blankets, one set of clothes and little else beyond basic toiletries.
They also have religious pamphlets and Qurans, provided by the de facto warden, a sheik who said that although Misrata is enraged at Gadhafi, some of these men were pressed unwillingly into service and must be treated with decency and respect.
Not all of them have been. Although in private those interviewed said they have been treated well since coming under the sheik’s care, and that the rebels now treat them well, many had been beaten at capture, by largely untrained rebels who have suffered in the siege and who know little of the laws of war.
Several had also been shot through the front of the feet — a crime that was practiced by some rebels at the time these men were captured, apparently designed to keep the prisoners from resisting or running away.
There were signs that prison life influenced what these men were willing to say.
When six prisoners were asked separately and in private about how they received their foot wounds, each of them gave evasive answers, including two who said, simply but uncomfortably, "I forgot."
In all, at least 138 prisoners were here at the middle of the week, and at least another 89 were at another center. These were the prisoners the Misrata rebels had thus far publicly acknowledged up the point that the city’s airport fell; the number now is almost certainly larger.
Two rooms held the wounded — including men with infected limbs, a badly burned young man with dried blood caked to his teeth and one older soldier whose left leg had been amputated. Although their dressings appeared new, the conditions of some of these men were dire.
All of the prisoners acknowledged thus far were listed as Libyan citizens, prison officials said, although it was not clear if this was because every Gadhafi soldier captured was Libyan, or if any foreign fighters had been handled elsewhere.