ICRC departs Libyan rebel stronghold

AP News
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Posted: Mar 17, 2011 9:33 AM

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday it has pulled out of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya, because of deteriorating security.

The humanitarian institution's disclosure that it has transferred all staff temporarily to the eastern city of Tobruk, where it will continue to assist victims of the Libyan conflict, provides dramatic evidence of the speed with which Moammar Gadhafi's forces have advanced on the rebels _ and the urgency facing their calls for help from the U.N. Security Council.

With Gadhafi's ground and air forces closing in on Benghazi on Thursday, a senior ICRC official on the ground in Libya said the group is deeply worried about the potentially disastrous consequences for any number of civilians and wounded.

"As we leave Benghazi and Ajdabiya after almost 20 days, we are extremely concerned about what will happen to civilians, the sick and wounded, detainees and others who are entitled to protection in times of conflict," said Simon Brooks, head of the ICRC mission in Libya.

"We will remain in dialogue with both parties with a view to returning to Benghazi and the western part of the country when the security situation permits," he said.

The sudden shift of fortunes for the rebels, who could face a siege in Benghazi by Gadhafi's forces, is putting pressure on the United States to push for U.N. authorization for a no-fly zone and use of force against the pro-government Libyan forces.

The Obama administration is reluctantly backing a U.N. resolution with options for helping the rebels militarily, even beyond a no-fly zone.

Brooks said Libyan Red Crescent's aid workers are still operating in and near Benghazi. Before leaving the area, the ICRC handed over to the Red Crescent enough food and other essential items to help sustain 15,000 people for one month more.

And with its withdrawal from Benghazi, the institution again demanded that both sides respect the rules of war. "The ICRC once again calls on all those taking part to spare civilians and medical staff," Brooks said.

ICRC has 95 staff members in Libya, including those working along the Egyptian and Tunisian borders and in Tobruk.