Battle for Benghazi looms, Libya army issues ultimatum

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 11:20 AM

By Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The battle for control of rebel capital Benghazi looked just hours away on Thursday after the Libyan army told people to leave opposition-held locations and arms storage areas, but residents said the city was quiet.

Benghazi residents poured scorn on the army announcement, one of several recent reports on Libyan television that have not been borne out. It said on Tuesday that pro-Gaddafi masses were rallying in the city, which residents said never happened.

"This is psychological warfare," Benghazi resident Faiza Ali told Reuters by telephone.

Jibril al-Huweidi, a doctor at al-Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi said ambulances were shuttling between Benghazi and Ajdabiya, a city further west where loyalist and opposition forces clashed.

"They could not have made it repeatedly back and forth tonight if the evil forces were closing in on Benghazi" he said.

A text on the screen of Al-Libya television addressed people in the eastern city, saying the army was coming "to support you and to cleanse your city from armed gangs."

"It urges you to keep out by midnight of areas where the armed men and weapon storage areas are located," it said.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said on Lebanon's LBC TV he did not expect a battle in Benghazi, seat of the insurgents' provisional national council, because Libyan people have been helping get rid of "al Qaeda" elements there.

One of Gaddafi's sons, Saif al-Islam, had told Euronews TV on Wednesday morning that Libya's second largest city would fall whether or not the international community agreed to impose a no-fly zone. "Everything will be over in 48 hours," he said.

NO NO-FLY ZONE

Diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed remain mired. Three weeks after a no-fly zone over Libya was first mooted, nothing has been agreed.

A U.N. Security Council draft resolution on a no-fly zone to protect civilians was circulated on Tuesday after a meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers in Paris this week failed to get the agreement France was hoping for.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate ceasefire by all parties and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States hoped for a U.N. Security Council vote aimed at ending Libya's conflict "no later than Thursday."

Saying Gaddafi seemed determined to kill as many as Libyans as possible in his violent effort to quell a month-long uprising, she said "many different actions" were being considered, not just a no-fly zone.

The United States, Russia, China, Germany, India and other council members are either undecided or voiced doubts about the proposal for a no-fly zone being proposed by Britain and France.

In Geneva, former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner lambasted the international community for its delay in imposing a no-fly zone, saying it was too late to save lives in the crackdown on an increasingly feeble-looking uprising, inspired by pro-democracy revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

"We've known since three weeks that the poor civil society, the poor people, are dying. And we are doing nothing," he told World Radio Switzerland.

Italy, a potential base for a no-fly zone proposed by Britain and France, ruled out military intervention in the oil-exporting north African country.

A MATTER OF HOURS

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), among the only aid agencies deployed in Benghazi, said on Wednesday it had withdrawn its aid workers from the town.

But Libyan rebels fought back against Gaddafi's troops around the eastern town of Ajdabiyah, 90 miles south of Benghazi on the Gulf of Sirte and a crucial gateway to Benghazi, hampering their push toward that city.

One rebel officer said earlier on Wednesday the town had been lost and the fighters who remained had handed over their weapons. But some apparently refused to surrender or flee.

By evening, residents said the rebels held the center of town while loyalist forces were mostly on its eastern outskirts.

In New York, anti-Gaddafi Libyan diplomat, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told reporters that the international community had 10 hours to act against Gaddafi's troops.

"We think that ... in the coming hours, we will see a real genocide in Ajdabiyah if the international community does not move quickly and prevent him from attacking it with a large force," he said.

A rebel spokesman in Benghazi, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters by telephone that they were holding Ajdabiyah.

"But the fighting is fierce. His supply lines are stretched so he can't push on from Ajdabiyah. We've got some surprises in store. We're going to fight on and we're going to win."

(Additional reporting by Tom Pfeiffer on Libya/Egypt border, Mariam Karouny in Djerba, Tunisia, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Louis Charbonneau and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations, Tom Heneghan in Algiers, James Regan, Tim Hepher and John Irish in Paris, and Arshad Mohammed in Cairo; Writing by Louise Ireland; Editing by Phillipa Fletcher)