Libya: This Isn’t Over Yet

The newly arrived American journalist had a perfectly reasonable question: How could the rebels have let Gaddafi’s family escape to Algeria?

Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, spokesman for the opposition forces in Benghazi, gave him a withering look. “You might want to have a look at a map and then think about that question,” he said.

Even the translator chipped in. “The border is a thousand kilometres long,” he pointed out to the journalists, gathered for a press conference.

The flight of Colonel Gaddafi’s second wife and three of his children exposes a simple fact of the conflict so far. Libya is a big country and there is a heck of a long way to go before the rebels can secure its borders.

So ignore today’s statement from Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, who said: “If as I hope Sirte falls as a result of a peaceful surrender by Saturday that will be the last bastion signalling the fall of the regime.”

Colonel Gaddafi has run from his headquarters in Tripoli. And if he loses Sirte it will be a major blow to his regime forces – and a great boost to the rebels, who will be able to drive from their stronghold of Benghazi all the way along the coast road to Tripoli – but it will not be the end of the conflict, as a look at a map of Libya does indeed show.

It is a vast country, stretching deep into the inhospitable dunes of the Sahara. With an area of 1.8m square miles, it could fit seven Britains inside its land mass. There are plenty of places to hide.

The rebels so far control a strip along the coast. It is of course the most important region by population, including as it does the major population centres of Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte. This is where oil tankers dock and where the country does its business. Important prizes all.

But that leaves a vast swath of the country beyond their reach. They have so far penetrated only a short way into the sparsely populated south. And the south is desperately important, for it is here that Gaddafi’s Great Man-made River system, an impressive feat of civil engineering, harvests aquifers and  pumps water north to the cities.

At the same time, the rebels know that regime forces are regrouping around Sabha. And that Gaddafi has spent a lot of time and money buying off the tribes of the south, such as the Touareg who helped his family scoot across the border into Algeria.

The rebels have made rapid and impressive gains in the past fortnight. They are to be congratulated on taking Tripoli and beginning the process of building a government. But Gaddafi, who always seems to be a couple of steps ahead of the world, isn’t finished yet.

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