Libya: Rebels defy attacks, eye Gaddafi’s hometown

Opposition says it controls strategic town of Zawiyah; regime appoints new UN envoy; at least 60 dead in 2 days; rebels down fighter plane.

Libyan rebels using anti-aircraft gun 311 R (photo credit: Reuters)
Libyan rebels using anti-aircraft gun 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters)
Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi waged a second offensive against the western town of Zawiyah on Saturday after rebels drove them out in a morning of fierce fighting; while to the east, opponents of the Libyan strongman pushed toward his hometown.
In a second day of fierce fighting for control of Zawiyah, 50 km. west of Tripoli, government forces retreated to the outskirts early in the day, but later mounted a counter-offensive.
Rebels said both attacks were repelled.
The city bore the signs of heavy fighting, with one building completely burned and smoldering rubble littering the center. Other buildings around the main square, the stronghold of rebel resistance, were riddled with holes from large-caliber weapons.
Rebels in eastern Libya said they were pushing further west after driving forces loyal to Gaddafi from the oil town of Ras Lanuf on Friday. Opposition fighters said they had taken the town of Bin Jawad some 525 km. east of Tripoli, and were moving on toward Sirte, Gaddafi’s heavily guarded hometown 160 km. away.
The fight over Sirte is likely to be fierce. The town is psychologically important. It is not only where Gaddafi was born but a place he has fashioned into a second capital designed in his own extravagant image.
“If Benghazi [rebels] can expand down into the Gulf of Sirte... they’ve got a very good shot at independence at the least – or maybe even overturning him at the most,” said Peter Zeihan, an analyst with the US-based Stratfor think tank.
The latest fighting suggested that front lines between government forces, including militia and mercenaries, and the rebels, who are fighting with everything from captured tanks to sticks and winning support from some police and soldiers along theway, were far from clear and could shift quickly.
Rebels seized Ras Lanuf on Friday and even managed to down a fighter aircraft in Gaddafi’s service. The BBC reported the plane had been shot down by a man in his 50s who was on his first day manning a mobile anti-aircraft gun, which only had one barrel working.
Reuters correspondent Mohammed Abbas wrote in a brief message from the scene: “I am at the wreckage of the aircraft in Ras Lanuf.” In a sign of the increasing reports of brutality of both sides of this conflict, he said the faces of the corpses appeared to have been ripped off.
The anti-Gaddafi National Libyan Council said on Saturday it had named a three-member crisis committee, which included a head of military affairs and one for foreign affairs.
Omar Hariri, one of the officers who took part in Gaddafi’s 1969 coup but was later jailed, was appointed head of the military.
Ali Essawi, a former ambassador to India who quit last month, was put in charge of foreign affairs. Mahmoud Jebril, who had been involved in a project among intellectuals to establish a democratic state, was named head of the crisis committee, which aims at streamlining decision-making.
Meanwhile, Libya has appointed former foreign minister Ali Abdussalam Treki as its UN envoy in New York, replacing an ambassador who had renounced the Gaddafi regime for inflicting violence on its own people, the UN said on Friday.
“The secretary-general has received correspondence from the Libyan authorities,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
“That correspondence names Dr. Treki as the person they wish to have as the permanent representative of their country.”
It is not clear whether Treki, one of Gaddafi’s most senior foreign policy advisers and a former president of the UN General Assembly, will ever take up the post as ambassador to the United Nations.
In theory, Gaddafi has the right to name his UN envoys.
“Libya is a recognized member of the United Nations,” Nesirky said. “When any country sends a letter naming the permanent representative, that person is the person who will be recognized as the permanent representative.”
Nesirky added, however, that Treki would need to present his credentials to Ban in New York to become the Libyan ambassador.
The United States has a treaty with the United Nations covering visa issuance, but Washington reserves the right to deny visas under certain circumstances.
It is unclear whether the US State Department would be prepared to give Treki a visa.
Economic pressure against Libya also continued to mount this weekend. Britain extended a freeze on assets to a further 20 members of Gaddafi’s entourage on Friday, and impounded around £100 million ($160m.) of Libyan currency.
Around £2 billion of assets belonging to Libyan interests are believed to have been frozen in Britain under sanctions against Gaddafi’s government after its violent crackdown on protests.
The asset freeze was imposed last week and initially applied only to Gaddafi and his immediate family. It now extends to 26 people.
“The financial net is closing in on Colonel Gaddafi,” Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told BBC television.
“We’re denying him access to banknotes, access to bank accounts, making sure he is held accountable for what is taking place in Libya and also denied the means to persecute his own people.”
Switzerland also banned transfers of money that could end up in the hands of his family and associates.
“Switzerland wants to prevent any financial support of Muammar Gaddafi and his circle,” the government said. It will also be forbidden to give people linked to Gaddafi direct or indirect access to money or economic resources, the government said.
On the ground in Zawiyah, the atmosphere was tense and the situation appeared fluid as rebels braced for more attacks.
A doctor in the city said at least 30 people, mostly civilians, had been killed during fighting there, bringing to at least 60 the death toll from two days of battles.
In the central square, four graves had been freshly dug.
The red, green and black flag of the rebellion flew from many buildings in the square, where rebels shouted anti-Gaddafi slogans atop tanks and armored personnel carriers captured from the army.
In the square, rebels showed a charred tank they had captured from government forces earlier in the day. It was hit by a rebel rocket-propelled grenade as Gaddafi forces tried to enter the square earlier, rebels said.
“The fighting has intensified and the tanks are shelling everything on their way. They have shelled houses,” resident Abu Akeel said by telephone, speaking of afternoon’s attack. “Now they are shelling a mosque where hundreds of people are hiding. We can’t rescue anyone because the shelling is so heavy.”
Outside the city, cars loaded with suitcases and boxes piled on their roofs could be seen driving westward toward Libya’s border with Tunisia as refugees continued to flee the violence.
Residents said it was difficult to say how many people had been killed in two days of fighting.
A government spokesman could not be reached for a comment.
“They took away many bodies of injured and killed civilians,” said a local civilian who was helping treat the wounded at a clinic. “I saw that. They were putting them in trucks.”
Residents said Gaddafi’s forces stormed into residential buildings and killed people inside their houses in order to secure sniper positions on rooftops.
“They slaughtered people,” another resident said. “But we tell Gaddafi that every time a martyr falls, there will be 10 to replace him.”
The noise of loudspeakers calling on rebels to keep on fighting could be heard through the telephone.
Rebels fighting Gaddafi’s four-decade rule in Zawiyah said they had captured two tanks and three armored personnel carriers from the army.
Inside a building that has served as the rebel central command in the town, the rebels presented six men they said were captured Gaddafi militia fighters.
Two of them were badly wounded, with one standing in a pool of his own blood, which was dripping from his thigh.
Appearing terrified, they waited silently as the rebels looked through their identification papers.