Libyan Rebels Wage 'Mad Max' War In The Mountains

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    Photojournalist Jonathan Levinson recently spent time in Libya documenting the rebel forces. In this photo essay, he shows how the rebels are reusing old weapons. Here, a silhouette designed for target practice is painted with the colors of the rebel flag and staked on top of a berm at a checkpoint in the Nafusa Mountains in western Libya.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    A Libyan rebel poses with his antique bolt-action rifle. He said that it was an American-made 1911; it is actually an Italian-made Carcano. That rifle was most widely used during World War II but can still be found in use in western Libya.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    "What emerged as a running theme," says Levinson, "was the level of ingenuity ... which has survived even in the face of food shortages and the obvious hardships." Here, an improvised shelter is seen at a rebel checkpoint in the Nafusa Mountains.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    A rebel soldier stands with his battle rifle at the Dahiba border crossing between Libya and Tunisia.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    Ammunition crates are set up as a makeshift shelter at a checkpoint near Kikla in the Nafusa Mountains.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    Rebels drive through the streets of Zintan in a modified Toyota Land Cruiser with the roof cut off and a ZPU-2 anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    A checkpoint guards the stretch of road in Rhybat that has been turned into a makeshift airplane runway.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    Gas stations are no longer open in western Libya. All the fuel is being brought in from Tunisia. Gas is sold from tanks in the beds of pickup trucks.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    "I hope my pictures convey not just the creative use of weapons and vehicles, surreal surroundings, and the still high morale, but also the power of a popular uprising," Levinson says. Here, the Dahiba border crossing between Libya and Tunisia.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    A rebel fighter loads ammunition into a ZSU-23 "Shilka" self-propelled anti-aircraft gun in Zintan.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    A rebel looks at a crate containing two 100mm rounds for the main gun of a T-55 battle tank that had previously belonged to Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    A destroyed T-64 that belonged to Gadhafi's forces sits in a field on the outskirts of Zintan — the closest Gadhafi's forces came to the city.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR
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    The makeshift runway in Rhybat serves planes flying between the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east and the Nafusa Mountains in the west.
    Photos by Jonathan Levinson for NPR

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The sleepy towns in the Western Mountains of Libya come to life right before the country's rebels engage in a fight with the forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The mostly deserted roads suddenly fill with pickup trucks. The rebel fighters bristle with the makeshift weapons that they rely on. The vehicles, some monster trucks, then peel off into the front lines deep in the desert, covered in dried mud that serves as camouflage.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have often featured large, well-trained armies facing off against insurgents who also have modern weapons. But Libya is a "Mad Max" kind of war.

The Western Mountains, also known as the Nafusa Mountains, rise up from Libya's flat coastal plains like a wall of rock. Their stark brown cliffs form a natural defensive barrier.

For months the rebels there were essentially cut off. Gadhafi's troops had these mountains surrounded, and the rebels had to fight with whatever was on hand. And there wasn't much: ancient World War II rifles, some Kalashnikov guns, but everything else had to be scavenged.

But as the rebels pushed Gadhafi's forces back, they were able to raid his weapons storehouses. Some turned up surprising items like U.S. Navy practice rounds, provenance unknown. The rebels have been using them in the fighting, not realizing that they are simply duds.

Some of the heaviest fighting in the war is taking place in the mountains, and there aren't enough guns to go around. At one rebel lookout on the edge of a mountain cliff, the fighters only had four tank rounds for their tank. Had they known, Gadhafi's fighters stationed nearby could have attacked at any time, and there was no way the rebels could have been resupplied.

To supplement their arsenal, the rebels have become creative. One fighter made a rocket launcher from an old barbecue, with long tubes for firing projectiles positioned on top of what had been the grill. It looks like you could cook meat in the back blast of the rocket fire.

The fighters themselves are also a motley crew. Professors, students, lawyers, engineers, doctors, laborers and taxi drivers have all taken up arms and headed to the front lines. They've become battle hardened, but still lack discipline.

The rebels in the Nafusa mountains have made gains in recent weeks, using their bravado and their rusty guns to lethal effect. But the fighting is still far from over.

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