Libyan rebels: Gaddafi's forces attacking Benghazi

US claims Libyan gov't violating ceasefire; French UN envoy says military intervention may be launched "hours after" upcoming int'l summit; Gaddafi calls UN resolution "blatant colonialism."

By REUTERS
March 19, 2011 07:46
3 minute read.
Libyan soldiers at gates to Ajdabiyah

Libyan Soldiers Tank 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

Large explosions were heard in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi early on Saturday, and residents said that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces were attacking the rebel stronghold.

The United States had accused Muammar Gaddafi of defying international demands for an immediate ceasefire, and France's UN envoy predicted military action within hours of an international meeting on Libya on Saturday.

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Rebel forces in the city were returning fire.

"The explosions started about 2 a.m. Gaddafi's forces are advancing, we hear they're 20 kms (12 miles) from Benghazi," Faraj Ali, a retired man who was with a group of men, said.

"It's land-based fire. We saw one aircraft," he added.

Jamal bin Nour, a member of a neighbourhood watch group, told Reuters he had received a call to say government forces were landing by boat, but it was impossible to confirm the information.

The city has been rife with rumors and hearsay that is virtually impossible to verify due to lack of communications.

A unilateral ceasefire declared on Friday by the Libyan government appeared to have done little to convince outside powers to hold off on plans for air strikes to force an end to an increasingly bloody civil war.

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Residents in the rebel-held western city of Misrata said they faced heavy bombardment on Friday -- a charge the government denied -- while a US official said Gaddafi's forces were still advancing towards the rebels' eastern stronghold Benghazi.

Within hours of President Barack Obama saying the terms of a UN resolution meant to end fighting in Libya were non-negotiable, his UN envoy, Susan Rice, asked by CNN whether Gaddafi was in violation of these terms, said: "Yes, he is."

Gaddafi said there was no justification for the UN resolution.

"This is blatant colonialism. It does not have any justification. This will have serious consequences on the Mediterranean and on Europe," he said in comments reported by Al Jazeera television.

France, which along with Britain has been leading a drive for military intervention, will host a meeting on Saturday on Libya which will be attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Arab leaders.

"Tomorrow we will have a summit in Paris with all the major participants in the operations and in the diplomatic effort. So I think it would be a good moment to send the last signal," the French ambassador to the United Nations told BBC's Newsnight.

"So I guess that after this summit, I think that in the coming hours, I think we will go to launch the military intervention," ambassador Gerard Araud said.

Obama made clear any military action would aim to change conditions across Libya -- rather than just in the rebel-held east -- by calling on Gaddafi's forces to pull back from the western cities of Zawiyah and Misrata as well as from the east. "All attacks against civilians must stop," Obama said, a day after the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing international military intervention.

"Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiyah, and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas. Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya ...

"Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable... If Gaddafi does not comply ... the resolution will be enforced through military action."


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