Posted: 10 Apr 2011 07:06 AM PDT
TOBRUK, Libya (Reuters) - As tank and artillery fire booms over the Libyan desert once more and soldiers fight over desolate towns, the graves of the dead from World War Two battles are a reminder of past struggles against oppression.
A total of 3,651 soldiers, mostly from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa lie in the Knightsbridge War Cemetery near Acroma, 25 km west of Tobruk.
There are several other such cemeteries in the area, including one for the German dead.
Tobruk itself was the site of a celebrated siege by German and Italian troops which began on April 11, 1941 -- 70 years ago on Monday.
Towns and cities like Brega, Ajdabiyah and Benghazi were also fought over by the Axis army led by General Erwin Rommel -- the Desert Fox -- and British and Commonwealth forces.
The names have become familiar again as a Libyan rebel army clashes up and down the coastal highway against Muammar Gaddafi's troops in an insurrection against his autocratic rule.
The Knightsbridge Cemetery is built on the site of a battle in May 1942. Bounded by a low wall on a patch of beige desert, the graves lie in neat rows either side of a central pathway lined by palm trees. A large cross overlooks the site.
"All these soldiers died around Tobruk, said caretaker Mohammed Hanish, who has looked after the cemetery for 28 years in the employ of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. "It's a beautiful place, but it's very sad."
His father had helped to collect and bury the bodies, he said. Thousands of Libyans were also killed in the conflict although none are buried here.
"There were many Libyans with the British. Libyans were helping to get rid of the fascists ruling our country," he said.
The strategic importance of the vast tracts of desert lay in Britain's need to protect the Suez Canal and Arabian oil fields from any attack from Italian-ruled Libya.
Early in the campaign, Rommel, a master of speed and surprise, raced across the desert with his Afrika Korps and Panzer tanks, driving the British from Benghazi into Egypt.
The Siege of Tobruk lasted 240 days. Radio Berlin derided its Australian defenders as the "rats of Tobruk" as they sought shelter in tunnels and dug-outs -- a nickname they proudly appropriated.
The siege was eventually lifted in November 1941 by General Claude Auchinleck and great tank battles raged back and forth to the west in the following several months.
Acroma was a key staging post, or "box", for supplies where a number of desert tracks met. As with today's conflict, the problem of keeping supplied with fuel and ammunition over hundreds of miles was a critical issue.
ROMMEL OUTFOXED BY MONTY
Rommel finally captured Tobruk in June 1942 and pushed on into Egypt. But the Desert Fox met his match when British General Bernard Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army. He was defeated at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt that November.
Hitler ordered the Afrika Korps to fight the death but in the end, the Germans retreated back across the desert.
Rommel's headquarters in Tobruk, a blockhouse overlooking the harbour, can still be seen today but the site is a state of neglect and decay.
He himself did not appear to be too impressed by Libya.
"Rivers of blood were poured out over the miserable strips of land which in normal times, not even the poorest Arab would have bothered his head about," he wrote (quoted in "Masters of Battle" by Terry Brighton).
Of the soldiers lying in Knightsbridge Cemetery, nearly 1,000 are unidentified, the gravestones marked "Known Unto God".
The other markers give name, age, regiment and date of death. Some have sentimental inscriptions from parents or wives. Others try to make sense of the loss.
"He died serving the cause of the liberation of mankind," reads the inscription on the grave of Lieutenant Edward Jardine of the Royal Army Service Corps, who was killed on March 20, 1942 at the age of 24.
Many families and military men have visited the site over the years although that has stopped since the uprising against Gaddafi started in February, caretaker Hanish said.
He said the cemetery was respected by all in the area and the fact the cross had never been desecrated showed that hardline Islamists were not at large in the area.
Asked what he thought about war and its human cost, he paused then said: "It depends. If war is for freedom, it is good. If not, it's bad."
(Editing by Jon Hemming)
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Posted: 10 Apr 2011 06:05 AM PDT
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Ivory Coast incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo have stepped up a counter-attack on presidential claimant Alassane Ouattara by firing on his hotel headquarters in Abidjan.
But residents in the besieged Ivorian commercial capital on Sunday came out in numbers not seen in the past 10 days due to heavy fighting, taking advantage of a lull in the bloodshed to replenish their food and other supplies.
Rebel forces seeking to install Ouattara, who won an election last November according to results certified by the United Nations, swept from the north to coastal Abidjan almost unopposed more than a week ago.
But despite a fierce rebel onslaught, Gbagbo's soldiers have held onto swathes of the city, and are now growing bolder.
The U.S. State Department condemned the attack on Ouattara's hotel, saying in a statement that Gbagbo's perceived attempts at negotiation last week were nothing more than a ruse to regroup and rearm.
"Gbagbo's continued attempt to force a result that he could not obtain at the ballot box reveals his callous disregard for the welfare of the Ivorian people, who will again suffer amid renewed heavy fighting in Abidjan," the State Department said.
But even if Gbagbo leaves, Ouattara's ability to unify the West African country, the world's No. 1 cocoa producer, may be undermined by reports of atrocities against civilians since his forces, a collection of former rebels from the north, charged into Abidjan. Ouattara's camp has denied involvement.
A U.N. spokesman in Abidjan said Saturday's attack on the Golf Hotel, which Ouattara has made his base since the election, involved heavy weapons that appeared to have been fired from Gbagbo's heavily defended residence.
"This was not a fight, but a direct attack by Gbagbo's forces, who fired RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and mortar rounds, from positions near Gbagbo's residence, at the Golf Hotel," said U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure.
He said one U.N. peacekeeper had been hurt, and that U.N. forces had responded by firing on those positions.
Gbagbo's spokesman Ahoua Don Mello denied that Gbagbo's forces had attacked Ouattara's headquarters and said the incumbent leader was calling on his supporters to mount resistance against French forces.
"President Gbagbo called for resistance against the bombing and the actions of the French army in Ivory Coast, because ultimately it is the French army that attacked us," Don Mello said in a statement.
Pro-Gbagbo forces seem to be determined to strike fast, a sign that they want to gain momentum before more troops desert, or that they may be desperate, said Lydie Boka, analyst at StrategiCo consultancy.
"The attack on Ouattara's headquarters have won Gbagbo praise among his supporters but will probably attract more sanctions on him," Boka said, adding that the last big battles would happen soon, even if pro-Gbagbo's backers take time to surrender.
Reuters Insider on cocoa: http://link.reuters.com/vuh88r
ABIDJAN PORT SECURED
French soldiers supporting the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast and backing Ouattara's claim to the presidency secured Abidjan's port on Saturday. But they said the central neighbourhoods of Cocody and Plateau were still being fought over.
French helicopters clashed with Gbagbo's defenders early on Saturday during a failed attempt to rescue diplomatic staff trapped by the fighting in Cocody. British and other diplomats were later evacuated, a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
The BBC said bullets had hit the British Embassy and a mortar round crashed into the garden.
Reuters witnesses said a fragile calm had returned to many parts of the city, allowing shell-shocked residents to leave their homes in search of food and water amid the debris of war, or to try to escape to safer areas.
Residents said more people were seen in the streets and more produce made it to the market stalls on Sunday than had been seen in the past week and half of fighting.
"The guns have been silent today, there are supplies in the market and there are many women selling food," said Stella Gogo, a resident of Yopougon, a Gbagbo bastion in Abidjan's north.
"Life is gradually resuming here," said Remi Pagni in the chic Deux Plateaux neighbourhood, which suffered some of the worst gunfire last week.
"There are some communal taxis running, some personal cars are also on the roads and some shops and pharmacies have opened. The situation is very difficult. We have no choice," Pagni said.
Gbagbo is believed to be isolated in the bunker under his residence in Cocody, where he has sought refuge from a concerted assault by Ouattara's troops while his elite presidential guard and militiamen do battle.
Only three days ago, his defeat had appeared imminent and talks took place between the two sides.
Zacharia Kone, a senior commander of Ouattara's forces near the northern entrance to Abidjan, said his soldiers were prepared for any counter-attack.
LOOTING AND BURNING
Gbagbo, who has ruled Ivory Coast since 2000, is defended by around 1,000 men. November's election was meant to draw a line under a 2002-03 civil war that split the world's top cocoa producer in two, but instead re-ignited it.
Burned-out vehicles and looted shops with wares spilling out of smashed windows were evidence of recent fighting in the south of Abidjan, as a French military convoy wound its way to the port handling the bulk of Ivory Coast's cocoa shipments.
"It was at the request of incoming president Ouattara that we have come to secure the port zone," said Captain Roland Giammei, who said the forces were working alongside Ivorian gendarmes loyal to Ouattara.
Ivory Coast's cocoa industry has been paralysed since January, when Ouattara announced a ban on exports and the European Union imposed shipping restrictions in order to squeeze Gbagbo's sources of money.
Ouattara is now seeking to revive the country's economic motor as fast as possible. On Friday, the EU lifted restrictions on the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro at his request. On Saturday, the first Air France passenger flight since April 1 landed in Abidjan.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Braun in Abidjan, Tim Castle in London, Patrick Worsnip and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Bertrand Boucey and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Bate Felix and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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