Image: A Libyan mechanic works on a pickup truck
Hassan Ammar  /  AP
A mechanic works on a pickup truck in Misrata, Libya, on Thursday.
By
updated 6/20/2011 4:59:04 AM ET 2011-06-20T08:59:04

Aref Abu Zeid used to be a heavy equipment engineer at the Libya Steel Company. Now he runs an 80-man team working 12 hours a day turning out rockets and weapons to fight Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

In this rebel stronghold in western Libya, civilian engineers, mechanics and tradesmen are pumping out materiel to arm the uprising against Gadhafi's rule that has become a civil war.

Video: NATO acknowledges raids killed civilians (on this page)

"None of us here have anything to do with the military," said Abu Zeid, 50, a short man with a thick salt and pepper beard and an easy smile. "Our need to protect our homes, our lives and our city forced us into this war work."

'Take what you want'
Misrata, the country's third-largest city located 125 miles southeast of the capital, is home to the largest steel company in the country and metal is always available here.

"Owners of carpentry and mechanical supply warehouses would just open their doors," Abu Zeid said. "They told us 'Take what you want.' Others bring us piles of money to buy what we need."

Story: Jolie visits refugees who fled Libya, Tunisia

At the beginning of the war in Misrata, mechanics were repairing arms in their homes and garages. But as it raged on, the engineers realized they needed bigger operations and a more organized force.

That's when about eight schools across the city turned into weapons' workshops. Volunteers flooded in to help.

Image: Weapons made by Libyan rebels
Hassan Ammar  /  AP
Rebel-made weapons are displayed at a workshop in Misrata, Libya.

Abu Zeid's operation — the Complete Industrial Skills College — is a sprawling campus with shops fitted with welding gear and machinery where youngsters formerly learned engineering and machine making.

Now the weapons-making crews receive request forms from the front lines that ask for specific machinery and weapons.

Clanging metal and sparking welders fill the main workshop. The floor is strewn with electrical wiring and scrap metal. Old instructional and safety posters still hang on the walls, a reminder that this was once a school.

Slideshow: Fleeing Libya: Refugees face peril (on this page)

Two men worked on installing Grad rockets onto the back of a pickup truck. Scavenged car parts, scrap metal and captured rocket launchers made up the rest of the project.

The truck itself was one of hundreds the rebels found stored in Gadhafi's government and military buildings. They are Chinese knockoffs of a popular Toyota 4-wheel drive called the Chao Yung Highlander.

"Without these Chinese cars we wouldn't have won this war in Misrata," said Abu Zeid. He caressed the side of the truck.

Once fitted with a weapon, the truck is painted black — the words "Feb 17 Revolution" spray- painted in white. The tricolor rebel flag emblazons the side of the vehicle.

In another workshop, the wooden butts of AK-47 automatic rifles are repaired and replaced.

Across the workshops, there are mechanics, engineers, and welders who've been tested as they turn their civilian knowledge into weapons and ammunition design and the trajectory of rockets.

Story: NATO cites errant missile in Libya civilian deaths

Homemade, rust-brown steel rockets lean in a pile against a wall. Near them are rockets captured from Gadhafi troops.

"We had no time to learn, we had to just become creative," said Ali Ibrahim, who used to drive trucks and now builds rockets.

Intuition
He said that at the beginning, rebels weapons makers were just working from intuition. Now they can copy and take ideas from the old Soviet and former East Bloc weapons taken from Gadhafi soldiers.

But many of the men at this workshop have nothing to do with mechanics or engineering at all.

Before the war started, Mohammed al-Ahmar ran a women's clothing store called The Princesses' Palace off Tripoli Street. Some of the fiercest battles between Libyan rebels and Gadhafi's army rattled along that street for days.

"Gadhafi's troops destroyed my shop and I lost 12 friends in the fighting," he said. "How could I just repair and open my shop again and go back to business?" he asked.

Story: NATO: Gadhafi using mosques, children's parks as shields

Al-Ahmar, 38, said he wanted to honor the memory of his dead friends. So he showed up one day at the college where he heard mechanics and engineers were maintaining weapons.

Today, wearing a gray mechanic's uniform, he balanced a cigarette between his lips as bored a hole into a slab of metal. It's destined to be part of a machine gun.

"The guys here are easy on me. They know my skills are limited in this kind of work, so they teach me something new everyday. I do small things like weld and cut metal," he said. "I am definitely going back to the clothing business as soon as Gadhafi falls."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Fleeing Libya: Refugees face peril

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  1. Men, who formerly worked in Libya, line up to board buses for a refugee camp near Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 15, 2011. Since violent unrest broke out in Libya in February, more than 550,000 people, mostly migrant workers, have left Libya for neighboring countries, primarily Tunisia and Egypt, according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A migrant worker from Ghana, who fled the unrest in Libya, carries her baby and belongings as they arrive in a refugee camp in Tunisia, about 4 miles from the border crossing at Ras Ajdir on March 21, 2011. Refugees faced an uncertain future in the crowded camps. The UN refugee agency described one camp in the area as having a "general atmosphere of lawlessness" that led to protests, and even deadly violence, over the extended stays. (Laura Leon Gomez / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Men, who used to work in Libya but fled the unrest there, are seen next to their tents in a refugee camp at the Tunisia-Libya border, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 5, 2011. The sudden influx of tens of thousands of refugees left camps short of food, shelter and toilets. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A stranded foreign refugee reacts after being informed that his name is not on the passenger list of a ship evacuating wounded Libyans and refugees fleeing the war zone in Misrata, Libya, on April 20, 2011. International aid groups and foreign governments scrambled to provide needed transportation for workers fleeing the country's civil war. (Nasser Nasser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A worker from Ghana, who fled the unrest in Libya, walks alongside a road after crossing from Libya into Tunisia at Ras Ajdir on March 19, 2011. Some workers had brief waits before being repatriated to their homeland, while others had to endure extended stays in crowded camps. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. African migrants and refugees flee the fighting in Misrata on April 27, 2011. They were on their way to be evacuated by an International Organization for Migration (IOM) ship bound for the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Migrants and Libyans aboard an International Organization of Migration ship depart the restive port city of Misrata on May 4, 2011. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Children wait with their mother to disembark a ship in Benghazi, Libya, on April 15, 2011. The family evacuated Misrata amidst the fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Nearly 1,200 Asian and African migrants escaped from war-torn Misrata that day, evacuated by international aid organizations. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rescuers help people who were forced into the sea after a boat carrying some 250 migrants from Libya crashed into rocks as they tried to enter the port of Pantelleria, an island off the southern coast of Italy, on April 13, 2011. Libya's civil war led to security lapses that have paved the way for African migrants to make often-deadly boat trips to Italy. (Francesco Malavolta / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Libyan woman evacuated from Misrata weeps as she disembarks from the Turkish ship Ankara upon arrival at Benghazi port on April 21, 2011. (Marwan Naamani / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Egyptians try to board a bus as a Tunisian soldier tries to stop one of them at the Libya-Tunisia border in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 3, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A rebel fighter, right, hugs a refugee fleeing unrest in Libya at the southern Libya-Tunisia border crossing of Dehiba on April 22, 2011. Thousands of people fled worsening violence in Libya's western mountains through the border crossing near the southern Tunisian town of Dehiba. (Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Rohan Muhammed, right, waits in the car after her family cleared customs to enter Egypt on March 17, 2011, at the border in Sallum, Egypt. The family left their home in Benghazi, Libya, because of the fighting. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Members of the Italian coast guard help refugees from Libya arrive on the island of Lampedusa, Italy, in the early hours of May 8, 2011. Thousands risked their lives to make the crossing to the Italian island. At one point the number of migrants exceeded Lampedusa's local population of less than 6,000. (Francesco Malavolta / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Italian police and coast guard officers carry an injured refugee as he arrives on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on April 6, 2011. More than 250 people, including women and children, were missing after a boat carrying migrants capsized off the Italian island that day. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Migrants from North Africa line up for food and water on March 29, 2011, on Lampedusa island, Italy. The small Italian island, only about 70 miles from the African coast, quickly became overwhelmed with immigrants as the Libya crisis deepened. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Libyan children attend classes in a tent at a refugee camp in Dehiba in southern Tunisia on May 23, 2011. An estimated 20,000 Libyan refugees have found shelter in Dehiba, a border town of 5,000, some in camps, most in the homes of strangers. Aid groups believe about 40,000 in total have fled into Tunisia's Tataouine province. (Anis Mili / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Men reach for bread behind barbed wire while waiting to enter Tunisia after fleeing Libya on Feb. 28, 2011, in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan refugee who fled the unrest in Libya stands outside her tent at a refugee camp in Dehiba, near the southern Libya-Tunisia border crossing of Wazin on May 9, 2011. Tunisia, looking to rebound economically after its own revolution, was coping with an increasing refugee crisis. (Zohra Bensemra / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. An ophthalmologist examines the eyes of a Libyan refugee in a makeshift hospital tent at a refugee camp in Tataouine, Tunisia, on June 3, 2011. After brief stays in camps, many of the Libyan refugees were welcomed into the homes of Tunisian families. (Anis Mili / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A Bangladeshi migrant worker who fled the conflict in Libya reaches to catch his passport as it is returned on March 14, 2011 at a transit camp near the Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, border crossing with Libya. Each Bangladeshi migrant worker who received his passport back moved to the next stage: a bus trip to the airport to be repatriated to his homeland. (Ciro Fusco / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Displaced people sleep on the floor in the international departure lounge of the Djerba, Tunisia, airport on March 17, 2011. As the fighting escalated in Libya, tens of thousands of guest workers including men, women and children from Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Sudan and other countries fled to the border of Tunisia. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A clown entertains people near a refugee camp for displaced people in Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 20, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Sudanese workers who fled Libya await news on their repatriation after crossing into Ras Ajdir, Tunisia, on March 22, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship that originated from Libya. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the ship left Tripoli loaded with about 850 refugees, mostly from West Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh, on May 28, 2011 and ran aground and sank on June 1. Only 578 people survived, one of the deadliest incidents in the Mediterranean this year. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Ukrainian Navy sailors welcome refugees from Libya in Sevastopol, on April 11, 2011. The Ukrainian navy ship Konstantin Olshanskiy transported 113 refugees, including 85 Ukrainians, to safety. (Andrew Lubimov / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A passenger kisses the ground and prays after disembarking from the Ukrainian navy ship Konstantin Olshanskiy in Valletta, Malta, on April 5, 2011. The ship carried 193 workers of various nationalities and their families out of Libya. Among the workers were 22 Britons and 20 Americans, who were picked up from the Tripoli area. (Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (27) Fleeing Libya: Refugees face peril
  2. Image: A photo said to show people gathering during recent days' unrest in Benghazi, Libya. The content, date and location of the image could not be independently verified.
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    Slideshow (81) Conflict in Libya

Video: NATO acknowledges raids killed civilians

  1. Closed captioning of: NATO acknowledges raids killed civilians

    >> for the first time one of the air strikes killed several sevilliae i civilians in libya on monday. stephanie goss is in tripoli this morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. nine civilians were killed, including two small children. 18 were injured. they are losing no time to take advantage of this incident if foreign minister is calling for a global jihad against what he calls the criminal west. now, this rocket attack happened early hours of sunday morning and hit a residential hear. nato says it regrets the loss of life but suspects a weapons system failure is to blame that a rocket veered off and struck that housing development . this comes after several tough days for nato. two days ago they had to admit that they accidentally hit a column of rebel forces in eastern libya. savannah?

    >> stephanie gosk in tripoli for

Interactive: Libyan tribes

  1. Above: Interactive Libyan tribes
  2. Gallery Gadhafi's children

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