Libyan jets bomb rebels as no-fly diplomacy crawls

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 11:53 AM
Libyan jets bomb rebels as no-fly diplomacy crawls

By Mohammed Abbas

AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi's jets bombed Libyan rebels on Monday in a counter-offensive that has pushed them back 100 miles in a week, far outpacing diplomatic efforts to impose a no-fly zone to help the rebels.

There is now a very real possibility that by the time world powers agree on a response to the conflict, Gaddafi's forces may already have won.

No consensus on help for the rebels emerged at a meeting of the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council in New York, or a meeting of foreign ministers of the Group of Eight (G8) powers in Paris.

"Fundamental questions need to be answered, not just what we need to do, but how it's going to be done," Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin said in New York.

In Paris, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the G8 wanted the Council to resume discussions as soon as possible, but that its ministers had not narrowed differences over a no-fly zone, which Russia and Germany are reluctant to approve.

Meanwhile, Libyan government artillery and tanks retook the small town of Zuwarah, 120 km (70 miles) west of Tripoli after heavy bombardment, resident Tarek Abdallah said by telephone.

Perhaps more significantly, they were shrinking the swathe of eastern Libya still held by revolutionary forces.

They captured the important eastern oil terminal town of Brega late on Sunday, and on Monday flew behind rebel lines to bomb Ajdabiyah, the only sizeable town between Brega and the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

ROAD TO BENGHAZI

Ajdabiyah commands roads to Benghazi and Tobruk that could allow Gaddafi's troops to encircle Libya's second city and its 300,000 inhabitants.

Soliman Bouchuiguir, president of the Libyan League for Human Rights, said in Geneva that if Gaddafi's heavily armed forces broke through to attack Benghazi, there would be "a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda."

Saturday's endorsement from the Arab League satisfies one of three conditions set by the Western NATO alliance for it to police Libyan air space, that of regional support. The other two are proof its help is needed and a Security Council resolution.

"Now that there is this Arab League statement, we do hope that it's a game changer for the other members of the council," said French U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud in New York.

Lebanese ambassador Nawaf Salam, sole Arab representative on the council, said Lebanon wanted it to act as fast as possible.

"We think it is not only a legitimate request, it is a necessary request," he said. "Measures ought to be taken to stop the violence, to put an end to the ... situation in Libya, to protect the civilians there."

U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said in Geneva that Gaddafi's government had "chosen to attack civilians with massive, indiscriminate force."

News of humanitarian suffering or atrocities could be taken as a sign that help is needed. But while Human Rights Watch has reported a wave of arbitrary arrests and disappearances in Tripoli, hard evidence is so far largely lacking.

U.S. UNDECIDED

If the Security Council eventually moved on to discussing a draft resolution on a no-fly zone and approved it, enforcement would almost certainly fall largely to the United States.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told MSNBC television that a no-fly zone was an option under consideration, but added:

"That is a decision, a political decision ultimately, that has not been taken."

Russia and China are even less enthusiastic, but U.N. diplomats said they would find it hard to veto a no-fly zone when the Arab League had requested it, and might abstain.

President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday barred Muammar Gaddafi and his family from conducting financial transactions in Russia, a move that brings Moscow more in line with Western policy.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Russia would consider any proposal that came before the Security Council, but suggested Moscow would want limits on a no-fly zone.

He said Arab League leaders had indicated a zone could be imposed "with some restrictions, primarily with full respect for the sovereignty of Libya and without the use of weaponry to suppress air-defense facilities."

NATO member Turkey was more categorical.

"Military intervention by NATO in Libya or any other country would be totally counter-productive," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told an international forum in Istanbul.

Philip Robins, a politics lecturer at Oxford University specializing in the Middle East, said the threshold for involvement in Libya was so high because there was a feeling that "the Iraq war was a bad, unreasonable and illegitimate war."

"It is a big misfortune for the Libyan people," he said.

In Tripoli, U.N. special envoy Abdelilah Al-Khatib met Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa in Tripoli at the start of a fact-finding mission, and agreed to meet again on Tuesday.

Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister, said on Friday in New York that he was ready to meet all parties to try to end the violence.

(Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi, Mariam Karouny in Djerba, Tunisia, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Louis Charbonneau and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations, James Regan, Tim Hepher, Arshad Mohammed and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Jon Hemming and Kevin Liffey; editing by Ralph Boulton)