Loyalist forces strike across Libya

Gaddafi likens crackdown to Israel’s Gaza offensive, warns that if he falls, thousands of refugees from Libya would "invade Europe."

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 8, 2011 01:05
Anti-Gaddafi rebels take up position

Libya rebels 311 Reuters . (photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)

Government forces struck at rebels in Libya’s east and were reported attacking a town near Tripoli on Monday as concern mounted over civilian suffering and a growing refugee exodus.

The United Nations said more than one million people fleeing Libya and inside the country needed humanitarian aid, and conditions in rebel-held Misrata town were particularly worrying following attacks on it by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

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Offering a potential olive branch to rebels seeking to end Gaddafi’s long rule, one of his associates appealed to opposition chiefs for dialogue, in a sign the aging autocrat may be ready to compromise with the unprecedented revolt.

The offer, rapidly dismissed by rebels, coincided with warnings by Gaddafi that if he fell, thousands of refugees from Libya would “invade Europe.”

In an interview with the France24 television station, Gaddafi said Libya was an important partner for the West in containing al-Qaida and illegal migrants trying to reach Europe.

“There are millions of blacks who could come to the Mediterranean to cross to France and Italy, and Libya plays a role in security in the Mediterranean,” he said.

He also likened the suppression on dissidents in his country to what he called Israel’s crackdown on al-Qaida terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

“Even the Israelis in Gaza, when they moved into the Gaza Strip, they moved in with tanks to fight such extremists. It’s the same thing here,” he said.

“We have small armed groups who are fighting us. We did not use force from the outset,” he said. “Armed units of the Libyan army have had to fight small-armed al-Qaida bands. That is what’s happened.”

One of Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi, said Libya would descend into civil war if his father stepped down, a move rebels who control swathes of the country have demanded, Al-Arabiya television said on Monday.

Saadi, speaking in an interview with the Arabic satellite channel, also said Libya would turn into a new Somalia and that the country’s tribes would fight against each other.

The Swiss-based exile group Libyan Human Rights Solidarity said forces loyal to Gaddafi had launched a new attempt to capture Zawiyah, a rebel-held town 50 km. west of the capital.

In the rebel-held city of Misrata, the wounded were being treated on hospital floors because of a catastrophic shortage of medical facilities in the besieged city, a resident said. Misrata is the biggest city in western Libya not under the control of Gaddafi, and its stand against a militia commanded by his own son has turned it into a symbol of defiance.

In the east, a warplane launched an air strike on the outskirts of the rebel-held oil terminal town of Ras Lanuf 600 km. east of the capital Tripoli, witnesses said.

The attack fit the pattern of much of the fighting, which has been erratic, with small groups engaging each other, guerrillastyle, in hit-and-run raids. Air attacks have been fitful and the bombing often inaccurate.

In some areas, advantage on the ground has swung back and forth without conclusive result.

Witnesses said government forces were now moving down the Mediterranean coastal road east of the recaptured town of Bin Jawad, heading toward Ras Lanuf 60 km. away. Residents of Ras Lanuf, fearing assault by the army, were leaving in cars laden with belongings on Monday and rebels said they had moved weapons into the desert for safekeeping.

The resilience of Gaddafi’s troops in the face of protests and their ability to launch a counter-attack has raised the prospect that the country is heading for prolonged bloodshed.

“It’s clear the government feels a sense of momentum on its side,” said Shashank Joshi, a military analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute. “That’s blunted by the fact that we are seeing extremely poor fighting skills by government forces, and reasonably competent fighting by the rebels.”

The pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that Gaddafi is using paid mercenaries from Serbia, Syria, the Ukraine and Romania to attack rebels, and Al Jazeera reported that Libyan rebels had shot down two Syrian planes in Ras Lanuf. Syria denied the claims, Israel Radio reported.

In Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu again compared the world’s reaction to unrest in Libya to the response he wished to see toward Iran.

“Until recently, Libya was a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the same council that condemned Israel for its actions during Operation Cast Lead,” Netanyahu said. “Today, the true faces of Libya and its ruler have been revealed. They all understand that Gaddafi is massacring his people.

“Indeed, there is another regime that massacres its people, tramples human rights and exports terrorism around the world, and this regime is developing nuclear weapons. This regime is that of the ayatollahs in Iran,” Netanyahu said.

“And to the same degree that there is moral clarity today regarding the need to warn the Libyan ruler and his people against perpetrating crimes against humanity and abusing its people, I think that there must be the same determined international action against the tyrannical and brutal regime in Iran.”

Britain, France and some other countries are working “on a contingency basis” on a United Nations Security Council resolution allowing for a no-fly zone over Libya, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday.

Hague told the British parliament there were “credible reports” that Libyan government forces had used helicopter gunships against civilians as Gaddafi supporters try to put down a revolt against his 41-year rule.

The White House press secretary said arming rebels is one of several options the US is considering. Jay Carney emphasized the White House was moving rapidly to evaluate the options but the United States does not want to get ahead of events.

“The option of providing military assistance is on the table because no options have been removed from the table,” Carney said.

But US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Afghanistan, said any foreign military intervention in the crisis in Libya should have international backing.

Speaking after talks with visiting Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, US President Barack Obama said NATO was considering military options, and that the two countries agreed that violence by the Libyan government against its people was unacceptable.


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