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Bloodied and miles from meds, Libya's rebellion shows its cracks

The main battlefront between rebellious eastern Libya and regime loyalists in the west settled into a tense standoff, while behind the front lines the rebels scrambled to prepare for greater bloodshed in the coming days.

Fresh gunmen reinforced rebel positions at a key oil refinery in Brega, warning residents that Moammar Gadhafi's men were gathering in the nearby desert and could resume their persistent efforts to capture the town.

Injured fighters streaming back from Brega described the regime's mercenaries dragging women and children from cars and using them as human shields. Their painful journeys from the battlefields to understaffed hospitals in Benghazi also revealed how the grinding days of conflict are straining the rebellion's ability to sustain itself with enough nurses, ambulances and basic medical supplies.

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Khalid Muftah al-Fakhiri, 38, saw two of his friends blown apart by a rocket-propelled grenade in Brega. He was dragging away one of their bodies when another explosion nearby riddled the left side of his body with shrapnel. He crawled a short distance and other fighters managed to pull him to safety, but their band of gunmen lacked plans for casualty evacuation. They flagged a car on the highway and reached the nearest hospital, only to discover chaos in the wards.

"We didn't have any medical supplies," he said. "Just water, dates and milk offered by the people."

Like many others, the injured fighter was transported to other rebel-held hospitals, first in Ajdabiya, then to Benghazi. But the system has limited capacity. Half the beds in the main trauma hospital are already filled, and doctors say they lack essential items for surgery.

Even getting patients to the wards can be treacherous, as witnesses describe pro-Gadhafi forces shooting at ambulances.

In a medical office behind the courthouse that now serves as the headquarters of the rebellion, a group of three Canadian-Libyans went with revolutionary committee members to tally up the shortages and take stock of available facilities.

In better times, the situation would not seem entirely grim. Benghazi has 1,200 functional hospital beds, and 25 operating theatres. Closer to the battlefields, Ajdabiya has 150 beds and three theatres, while other rebel towns of Al Bayda and Tobruk have 250 beds, respectively, each with four or five theatres.

Members of the committee said they're worried that those facilities could get overwhelmed if the fighting continues. Getting medical supplies from abroad, they say, is an urgent need to expand hospital capacity.

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They are calling on foreign donors to give them field surgery units, or even floating hospital ships that could be docked along the eastern coast.

Such ships could be especially helpful at Darnah, a town with only nine functioning hospital beds and no proper surgical equipment, doctors say.

"We have some shortages of drugs and instruments," said Gebril Hewadi, head of radiology at Al-Jalla Hospital, Benghazi's largest. He's a member of the committee co-ordinating the rebels' medical system.

"We need to organize ourselves inside and outside Libya, because Gadhafi is gathering his forces. We need to be ready."

Fathi Abuzgaya, 53, an orthopedic surgeon from Toronto, said his specialty is particularly in demand because those with limb injuries are able to reach the hospitals easier than those with more serious trauma.

"The need is huge," he said. "Some of the cases we've seen are just devastating. Kids hit with heavy weapons. Gruesome stuff."

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The doctors have privately arranged for shipments of medical supplies, and hope they arrive in the coming days via the land crossing from Egypt.

Other precautions have included shifting patients out of Al-Jalla Hospital to make room for recent arrivals.

As new patients reach the wards, they bring accounts that suggest the mercenaries hired by the regime have used human shields.

Two witnesses said that rebels were forced to hold their fire against Col. Gadhafi's forces during heated battles around Brega after mercenary forces dragged at least eight civilians from their vehicles and lined them up in front of firing positions, for protection.

"They were stopping every car, taking civilians out and using them as shields. I saw this with my own eyes," said Nasir Nuri Ali, an administrator at a local university in Brega before becoming a rebel fighter. "They were panicking, screaming, but I think all of them survived."

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