Gaddafi offensive rolls up rebel-held towns

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 10:17 AM

By Mohammed Abbas

AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi's troops seized the strategic Libyan oil town of Brega on Sunday forcing rebels to retreat under a heavy bombardment while world powers considered imposing a no-fly zone.

Losing Brega and its refinery further limits rebel access to fuel after the insurgents were pushed out of Ras Lanuf on Sunday, another major oil terminal some 100 km to the west along the coast road where all of Libya's important towns are located.

"Brega has been cleansed of armed gangs," a Libyan government army source told state television.

Defeated rebel fighters were demoralized

"There's no uprising anymore," said rebel Nabeel Tijouri, whose heavy-machinegun had been destroyed in the fighting. "The other day we were in Ras Lanuf, then Brega, the day after tomorrow they will be in Benghazi."

Brega is 220 km (137 miles) south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi with the town of Ajdabiyah the only sizeable town standing in the way. From Ajdabiyah there are roads to either Benghazi or Tobruk, close to the border with Egypt.

Libya's flat desert terrain means the government's air supremacy and big advantage in tanks outweighs the rebels' enthusiasm and light weaponry. Only towns and cities provide some cover for the insurgents and partially even the odds.

"He's out of Brega. He's on the way, maybe in half an hour his rockets will reach us here," rebel fighter, Masoud Bwisir, at the western gate of Ajdabiyah, referring to the enemy.

NO-FLY ZONE

The speed of the government advance may overtake drawn-out diplomatic wrangling on whether or how to impose a no-fly zone.

The United States said a call by the Arab League for a U.N. no-fly zone protect Libyan cities was an "important step". But while Washington said it was preparing for "all contingencies", it remains cautious over endorsing direct military intervention.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said the League had "officially asked the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone against any military action against the Libyan people".

France, one of the vocal supporters of a no-fly zone, welcomed the call by the Arab League which it said demonstrated the willingness of the international community to protect Libya's civilian population.

France plans to step up its efforts in the coming hours in consultation with the European Union, the Arab League, the U.N. Security Council and the Libyan National Council, the Foreign Affairs ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

Arab support satisfies one of three conditions NATO agreed on Friday are needed for it to take on the task of policing Libyan air space. The others are proof that its help is needed, and a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The United States does not want to appear to be leading the drive to oust Gaddafi and made no proposal for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Even if the Security Council meets to discuss a no-fly zone, it is far from clear whether it would pass a resolution as veto holders Russia and China have both publicly opposed the idea.

MUTINY?

The Libyan conflict has escalated from a popular uprising similar to protests that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and have shaken other countries in the region, and is now more akin to a civil war. Protests in Triopli have stopped.

Human Rights Watch said "Gaddafi and his security forces are brutally suppressing all opposition in Tripoli, including peaceful protests, with lethal force, arbitrary arrests, and forced disappearances."

Fresh from crushing the revolt in Zawiyah, west of the capital Tripoli, elite government troops and tanks turned to Misrata, Libya's third biggest city and the only pocket of rebel resistance outside the east.

But a mutiny among government troops stalled their advance for a second day on Sunday, rebels said.

"From the early morning they (the government troops) are fighting among each other. We hear the fighting," Mohammed, one of the rebel fighters, told Reuters by telephone.

"This division between them came to us from God. Just when we thought the end was coming, this happened. Now we are waiting to see what will happen."

The events could not be confirmed independently. Journalists have been prevented from reaching the city by the authorities. The government dismissed the reports as rumours and said there were al Qaeda fighters in Misrata.

"It looks like a Zawiyah scenario. Some people will give up, some will disappear," said government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim. "Those who stay behind, we will deal with them accordingly."

It took a week of repeated assaults by government troops, backed by tanks and air power, to crush the uprising in Zawiyah, a much smaller town 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli.

The death toll in Zawiyah is unknown but much of the town was destroyed, with buildings around the main square showing gaping holes blown by tank rounds and rockets. Gaddafi's forces bulldozed a cemetery where rebel fighters had been buried.

After fighting ceased in Zawiyah on Friday, one soldier there was asked about the fate of rebels. He made a throat-cutting gesture and laughed.

(Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, Tom Pfeiffer in Benghazi, Mariam Karouny in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, Alister Bull in Washington; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Jon Boyle)