Libya: At least 30 dead as rebels try to halt Benghazi push

Women, children, elderly killed in crossfire around eastern town of Ajdabiyah; US raises possibility of air strikes.

March 17, 2011 15:10
3 minute read.
Libyan soldiers at gates to Ajdabiyah

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


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At least 30 women, children and elderly men have been killed in crossfire as Libyan rebels and Muammar Gaddafi's troops fight around the eastern town of Ajdabiyah, Al Arabiya TV reported on Thursday.

The rebels have been trying to halt a push towards the insurgent capital of Benghazi by Gaddafi's troops, who have surrounded Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) south of Benghazi on the Gulf of Sirte, an eyewitness said.

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"I was at the hospital and saw 30 dead women, children and elderly men. They were all civilians, not rebels," Abdel Bari Zewi, a witness, was quoted as saying.

Zewi said there were around 100 wounded in the hospital.

"Gaddafi's forces have surrounded Ajdabiyah from all directions and there are fierce battles between rebels and Gaddafi's brigades at the eastern and southern directions".

 Libyan government soldiers battled rebels on the road to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi on Thursday as the United States raised the possibility of air strikes to stop Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

The army told people to leave opposition-held locations and arms dumps. But its advance on Benghazi -- and the prospect of a decisive battle in the insurrection -- was hampered by clashes around Ajbadiyah, a strategic town on the coastal highway.

Slow-paced international efforts to halt the bloodshed moved up a gear when the United States, previously cool on the idea of a foreign military intervention, said the UN Security Council should consider actions beyond a no-fly zone over Libya.

"We are discussing very seriously and leading efforts in the Council around a range of actions that we believe could be effective in protecting civilians," US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in New York.

"The US view is that we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include but perhaps go beyond a no-fly zone."

Washington had initially reacted cautiously to Arab League and European calls for a no-fly zone over Libya, with some officials concerned it could be militarily ineffective or politically damaging.

Diplomats told Reuters that the United States, Britain and France now supported the idea of the council authorizing military action such as airstrikes to protect civilian areas.

Russia, however, and other council members are resisting the proposals.

The change appeared to driven by the increasing plight of the rebels, who are fighting to end 41 years of rule by Gaddafi.

Their ill-equipped forces have been driven back by troops backed by tanks, artillery and war planes from towns they had seized last month in the early days of the uprising.

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A message on Al-Libya state television told people in Benghazi, seat of the insurgents' provisional national council, that the army was coming "to support you and to cleanse your city from armed gangs".

"It urges you to keep out by midnight of areas where the armed men and weapon storage areas are located," it said.

Benghazi residents poured scorn on the army announcement and said the eastern city was quiet.

Jibril al-Huweidi, a doctor at al-Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi, said ambulances were shuttling between there and Ajdabiyah, 150 km (90 miles) to the south on the Gulf of Sirte.

"They could not have made it repeatedly back and forth tonight if the evil forces were closing in on Benghazi" he said.

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