Libyan troops push back rebels from oil town

Insurgents warn uprising could be crushed without a no-fly zone; Obama says US "tightening noose" on Gaddafi, hints at military action.

March 12, 2011 14:43
2 minute read.
Libyan rebel firing at helicopter

Libyan rebel firing at heli (R) 311. (photo credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)


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TRIPOLI,  - A sustained bombardment by Muammar Gaddafi's planes and tanks beat back rebels from the Libyan oil port of Ras Lanuf on Saturday, and insurgents warned the uprising could be crushed completely without a no-fly zone.

But the Arab League, meeting on Saturday, was expected to follow the European Union, the United States and NATO and fall short of calling for a no-fly zone to be imposed on Libya.

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The small coastal town of Ras Lanuf and the oil terminal there have changed hands several times over the last week as Libyan government troops, backed by tanks and air power have duelled with rebels armed with light weapons, heavy machineguns and outdated anti-aircraft guns mounted on pick-up trucks.

But warfare on Libya's flat desert terrain heavily favours the use of heavy armour and airpower. The Libyan army is also better trained and disciplined than the rag-tag, though enthusiastic, rebel force.

Libyan troops launched an amphibious assault on Ras Lanuf early on Friday, backed by tanks and warplanes. But after a day of skirmishing in which oil storage tanks were blown up sending black columns of smoke into the sky, the rebels retreated east.

"We're out of Ras Lanuf. They've beaten us back with bombardment," said rebel Colonel Bashir Abudl Qadr. "We've moved back 20 km (12 miles) from last night because we are also afraid the refinery will explode."

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US President Barack Obama said on Saturday the United States and its allies were "tightening the noose" on Muammar Gaddafi and said he had not taken any options off the table, a hint at military action. But there is little enthusiasm in Washington for enforcing a no-fly zone without United Nations' backing.

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Friday sidestepped a British and French call to draw up a UN Security Council resolution to authorise a no-fly zone over Libya, but agreed on a three-way summit with the African Union and the Arab League to discuss the crisis.

The African Union, long courted by Gaddafi, has already said it is against foreign military intervention, but is to send delegation of the leaders South Africa, Uganda, Mauritania, Congo and Mali to Libya to try for a peaceful end to the war.

The Arab League is to discuss a no-fly at meeting in Cairo on Saturday, but is unlikely to agree to endorse such a move due to probable objections from Syria and Algeria.

"The chances of a clear position to be issued with consensus from the meeting ... saying 'yes' to a no-fly zone and recognition of the (rebel) council is very weak," said Wahid Abdel-Meguid, an analyst at a Cairo-based political think-tank.

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