Libyan rebels have access to a mobile phone network for the first time in a month after a secret operation to hijack equipment formerly controlled by the Gaddafi family.
The network is helping rebel commanders on the front lines of the conflict, who had been forced to rely on a primitive system of flags to order their amateur army to advance or retreat.
Authorities in eastern Libya are also using their improvised mobile communications to forge international links as they seek to galvanise support for their war against Colonel Gaddafi.
Ousama Abushagur, a telecoms executive based in Abu Dhabi, masterminded the network on an airline napkin, and organised diplomatic support from UAE government. He told the Telegraph that the new network is reliant on a data centre in London’s Docklands.
“Free Libyana” also relies on millions of dollars worth of equipment supplied by Etisalat, the UAE telecoms giant. A Libyan businessman based in the UAE funded the deal, said Mr Abushagur.
Etisalat stepped in after an attempt to buy the necessary systems from Hauwei, a Chinese telecoms manufacturer, was rejected. It had supplied Libyana, the existing mobile network that Mr Abushagur planned to hijack. A Huawei spokesman declined to comment.
Libyana is one of two mobile operators in Libya, both of which are controlled by Colonel Gaddafi’s eldest son Muhammad. The cable and microwave links that connect mobile masts in eastern Libya to the network hubs in Tripoli were cut in early March.
Mr Abushagur, a 31-year-old Libyan raised in Alabama, drew up his technical plans on a flight on 6 March. Humanitarian convoys he had organised suffered logistical problems because the Gaddafi government was also broadcasting jamming signals to cripple satellite telephones.
Within two weeks Mr Abushagur had assembled a team of engineers – three Libyans and four Westerners – and bodyguards in Doha. After flying to Egypt they crossed the border into Libya and headed for the rebel capital, Benghazi.
Alongside Benghazi-based Libyana workers, they installed their equipment to create a new network independent of Tripoli.
The rebel network was completed using a copy of the Libyana customer database and a satellite link to other countries, again supplied by Etisalat.
The vital customer database, of around 750,000 individuals, was not stolen “because that could have got someone killed”, said Mr Abushagur. Instead engineers painstakingly reconstruced it from available data.
Mr Abushagur successfully tested the network on 2 April with a call to his wife in Abu Dhabi.
“She’s the one who told me to go for it in the first place,” he added.
Free Libyana is now in widespread within eastern Libya, though international calling is limited to selected senior figures.
Last week William Hague told the UN that Britain had also responded to a request for communications equipment from the Libyan rebels. Mr Abushagur, who plans more trips to Benghazi, said he had seen no sign of British-supplied equipment. Telegraph