The nascent rebel effort in eastern Libya, sustained for weeks by revolutionary passion and zeal, has begun to fray in the face of chaotic battlefield collapses and ineffective leadership.
Many of the idealistic young men who looted army depots of gun trucks and weapons six weeks ago believed the tyrannical 41-year reign of Col. Moammar Kadafi would quickly collapse under the weight of a mass rebellion.
Now those same volunteer fighters, most of whom had never before fired a gun, have fled a determined onslaught by Kadafi's forces, which have shown resilience after being bombarded and routed by allied airstrikes a week ago.
Some exhausted rebels capped a 200-plus mile retreat up the Libyan coast by fleeing all the way to Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital, to rest and regroup. Others remained at thinly manned positions at the strategic crossroads city of Ajdabiya on Thursday.
Small groups of rebels stood their ground and fought Kadafi militiamen who seemed on the verge late Thursday of recapturing the oil city of Port Brega.
For many rebel fighters, the absence of competent military leadership and a tendency to flee at the first shot have contributed to sagging morale. Despite perfunctory V-for-victory signs and cries of "Allahu akbar!," the eager volunteers acknowledge that they are in for a long, uphill fight.
"Kadafi is too strong for us, with too many heavy weapons. What can we do except fall back to protect ourselves?" said Salah Chaiky, 41, a businessman, who said he fired his assault rifle while fleeing Port Brega even though he was too far away to possibly hit the enemy.