Pushing east, Gaddafi’s fighter jets bomb rebels

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 14, 2011 17:41

France pushing for no-fly zone over Libya "as fast as possible"; Gaddafi government "certain of victory, whatever the price."




Libyan rebels using anti-aircraft gun

Libyan rebels using anti-aircraft gun 311 R. (photo credit: Reuters)

Muammar Gaddafi’s jets bombed Libyan rebels on Monday, aiding a counter-offensive that has pushed insurgents 100 miles eastward in a week, as France pressed for a no-fly zone “as fast as possible.”

Gaddafi’s government, at first reeling from widespread popular uprisings last month, is now confident of success.

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“We are certain of our victory, whatever the price,” state TV said.

Government troops took Brega on Sunday, but the rebels said they had moved back into the important eastern oil terminal town during the night and surrounded Gaddafi’s forces.

Libyan planes bombed Ajdabiyah, behind rebel lines, the only sizable town between Brega and the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. From Ajdabiyah there are roads to Benghazi and to Tobruk, which could allow Gaddafi’s troops to encircle Benghazi.

There is now a very real possibility that by the time world powers agree on a response to the conflict in Libya, Gaddafi’s forces may already have won, some analysts said. Others said the difficulty Libyan forces had stamping out small numbers of rebels in the west points to a long, nasty fight when Gaddafi’s troops reach Benghazi.

An internationally enforced no-fly zone would do little to halt the advance of Gaddafi’s forces because, at decisive moments, they have been beating the rebels on the ground, not from the air. But when they reach Benghazi, Gaddafi’s superior firepower is likely to be blunted by the kind of urban warfare waged first in the city of Zawiyah, just to the west of Tripoli, and now in Misrata, 200 km. east of the capital.

France is pushing G8 foreign ministers meeting in Paris to agree to action on Libya, and back its efforts to speed up a UN Security Council decision on imposing a no-fly zone.

France hopes an Arab League request to the council to impose a no-fly zone will persuade reluctant members to support it. Arab League backing satisfies one of three conditions set by NATO for it to police Libyan air space, that of regional support. The other two are proof that its help is needed, and a Security Council resolution.

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News of humanitarian suffering or atrocities could persuade more powers that help is needed and also spur Security Council action. But while Human Rights Watch has reported a wave of arbitrary arrests and disappearances in Tripoli, hard evidence is so far largely lacking.

“Everyone here is puzzled as to how many casualties the international community judges to be enough for them to help. Maybe we should start committing suicide to reach the required number,” said rebel spokesman Essam Gheriani in Benghazi.

“It is shameful,” he said. “We are hoping today for some development such as a resolution” at the Security Council.

In New York, the Security Council began discussing a nofly zone on Monday, though not yet a draft resolution.

French UN Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters that Lebanon, the sole Arab member of the council, would play a key role in negotiations on a draft resolution, but declined to comment over whether it might be too late for a no-fly zone. France was the first country to recognize the rebel government as Libya’s legitimate representatives.

If the Security Council does endorse a no-fly zone, enforcing it will fall largely to the United States, which has yet to decide whether to back the measure.

“That is a decision, a political decision ultimately, that has not been taken,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told MSNBC television. He added that a no-fly zone was still, however, an option under consideration.

Russia and China are even less enthusiastic, but UN diplomats said they would have difficulty vetoing a no-fly zone when the Arab League had requested it and may instead abstain.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left Washington on Sunday for Paris; later in the week she will hold the first cabinet-level US talks with the Libyan opposition and discussions on democratic reform with transitional leaders in post-revolt Egypt and Tunisia.

As the diplomatic wrangling continues, Gaddafi’s tanks and planes have proved more than a match for the rag-tag rebel force, especially in the flat desert terrain in between major towns, pushing them back some 150 km. since the counterattack began on March 6.

Rebels say the government assaults follow a pattern: First warplanes attack, striking fear into rebel ranks, then comes a rolling artillery barrage as ground troops move in, some of them landing from the sea.

While advancing east, government forces have also moved to crush pockets of resistance left in the west.

Government troops attacked Zuwarah on Monday, a small town 100 km. west of Tripoli.

Four people were killed. A Zuwarah resident said pro- Gaddafi forces had entered the western town in tanks and were fighting their way toward the center.

“I can see the tanks from where I am now, and they are around 500 meters from the center of Zuwarah,” Tarek Abdullah told Reuters by telephone.

“There are still clashes, but I think soon the whole town will fall into their hands.”

Residents had earlier reported intensified shelling that sent many people running from their houses for safety because they were also being hit.

The only major city held by insurgents outside the east is Misrata. Rebels and residents there say an assault on the city has been held up by infighting within the ranks of the besieging government forces.

The UN human rights office urged the international community to move quickly to protect Libyan civilians from violence.

“The government of Colonel Gaddafi... has chosen to attack civilians with massive, indiscriminate force,” deputy high commissioner Kyung-wha Kang said in a speech. “The responsibility to protect them now falls on the international community.”


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