* Misrata businessmen funding arms supplies for rebels
* Food manufacturer provides rations for troops
* Entrepreneurs say they have to stand and fight
By Nick Carey
MISRATA, Libya, July 11 (Reuters) - When the battle for
Misrata began in late February, Mahmoud Mohammed Askutri started
out with a Kalashnikov rifle and four bullets.
Standing alongside his former schoolteacher, who was armed
with a sharpened piece of metal, Askutri spotted and shot a
soldier loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
He took the dead soldier's Kalashnikov and bullets, thereby
adding much-needed firepower at a time when most Libyans
participating in the uprising against Gaddafi were fighting with
knives, petrol bombs and hunting rifles.
In the subsequent months, Askutri, a local businessman who
owns a construction company, has formed the rebel 1st battalion
of the Al Marsa regiment, which he funds and supplies with
weapons and ammunition bought on the black market.
While Libya's third-largest city was under siege, he raised
money, including a donation of a kilogram and a half of gold his
mother had been saving up since 1998 to build a mosque, to help
bring a first shipment of weapons to ammunition here.
Misrata has traditionally been one of Libya's biggest
centres of commerce and industry, and businessmen like Askutri
are now using their wealth -- once invested in palatial homes
and business empires -- to finance the fight to end Gaddafi's
"The young men on the front line are not fighting for money
or power," said Askutri, speaking at his former summer house,
which now serves as the 1st battalion's command centre. "They
are doing this for dignity and freedom."
"I'm ready to give everything for them, even to sell this
house," he added, waving at the home with its immaculate lawn.
But fighting here is expensive.
Some heavy weapons are given to the fighters in Misrata by
the main rebel leadership in Benghazi in eastern Libya, others
are scavenged, but the gaps are filled, say the rebels, by
cutting deals with private arms dealers outside Libya who demand
cash up front.
A single Kalashnikov rifle bought by that route costs
$3,000. Askutri now has access to his bank accounts via
Benghazi, and uses the funds to buy regular consignments of guns
and ammunition for his men.
Helped in part by the weapons acquired with donors' cash,
the anti-Gaddafi militias forced government troops out of
Misrata over weeks of bitter fighting. The rebels have now
pushed the front line about 36 km (22 miles) west of the city
but they are still besieged on three sides.
"If Gaddafi got back into Misrata, there would be a
massacre," Askutri said. "So we fight here or we die."
HAPPY TO HELP
On Feb. 19, two days after the start of Libya's rebellion,
Fauzi Ibrahim Al Karshaine went out into the streets of Misrata
with other residents to protest for more freedom.
When Gaddafi loyalists opened fire on the crowd, Al
Karshaine was hit by five bullets in a line from his right thigh
to just below his right shoulder.
Rushed to a local hospital, he was given emergency treatment
by a doctor who warned him that if he stayed there, Gaddafi's
troops would kill him.
So he was helped for a month and a half by two young medical
students who moved him around the city and kept him alive until
the hospital was seized by the rebels and he could be treated.
Now unable to fight because of his wounds, Al Karshaine,
joint owner of the Albaraka Hotel in central Misrata and owner
of a large marble and granite company, says he is using his
wealth to help his city.
He says he supplies food for the poor of Misrata, and also
provides money to rebel groups to help them fund their
operations, although does not get involved himself in buying
"I have no experience of buying guns, so I leave it up to
the fighters to decide how best to use the money," he said. "But
if they use it to buy guns, that makes me happy."
"I am very happy to support my people to fight this animal,"
he added, referring to Gaddafi. "The businessmen of Misrata like
myself are now fighting him with money instead of guns."
'ICE CREAM IN HAND'
Mohammed Raied has a simple yet specific dream for when --
he does not say if -- rebel fighters take Zlitan, the town
immediately to the west of Misrata that is blocking the rebels'
advance towards the capital, Tripoli, 160 km (96 miles) away.
"I want every fighter to stand in the centre of Zlitan with
a gun in one hand and an ice cream in the other," said the
chairman of Al-Naseem, a yogurt, ice cream and fermented milk
maker in Misrata.
Before the uprising, the company had invested heavily in
state-of-the-art machinery, including a nearly completed 50
million euro expansion of its plant here. It had business across
Libya and exported to neighbouring countries.
Now Al-Naseem, founded by Raied and his four brothers, is
running at a low capacity to serve Misrata and is looking to
provide food to Benghazi. But since the only connection is
currently by boat, that is a logistical headache.
The company's plant and Raied's home were struck by missiles
fired by Gaddafi loyalists in March.
Over the past four months, Raied, who has also been head of
the chamber of commerce in Misrata for the past 12 years, has
chartered a cargo ship of weapons and ammunition from Benghazi
at a cost of $100,000.
He has chartered 25 flights to take injured Misrata
residents from Benghazi to Tunisia at $20,000 a flight and has
chartered a ferry for a month to maintain a link with Benghazi.
Al-Naseem employees away at the front line or involved in
the uprising war effort still receive their wages.
When asked if he considered that an investment in the future
of Libya, Raied gave a slight, slow shake of his head.
"It is our duty," he said, holding up a forefinger as he
spoke. "If we don't do this, Gaddafi would return, destroy
everything and kill people.
Two of Raied's sons are fighting at the front and a third
will join them soon. The Al-Naseem company sends an ice cream
truck to the front line every day with supplies.
On a recent Reuters visit to the front line, a fighter
walked down the line handing out Al-Nassem chilled yogurts,
which were wolfed down by young men there.
The firm has also paid for 700 cargo containers full of food
to be brought here to help prevent the people of Misrata from
"Everyone must do their duty to the best of their ability,"
Raied said. "We have the enemy in front of us and the sea behind
"There is no way to go," he added. "So we have to fight."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)
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