Gaddafi Forces Strike Back in West and East Libya

Libyan government forces attacked rebels with rockets, tanks and warplanes on western and eastern fronts, intensifying their offensive to crush the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi. Rising casualties and the threats of hunger and a refugee crisis increased pressure on foreign governments to act, but they struggled to agree on a strategy, many fearful of moving from sanctions alone to military action.

In besieged Zawiyah, the closest rebel-held city to Tripoli, trapped residents cowered from the onslaught on Tuesday. “Fighting is still going on now. Gaddafi’s forces are using tanks. There are also sporadic air strikes… they could not reach the center of the town which is still in the control of the revolutionaries,” a resident called Ibrahim said by phone. “Many buildings have been destroyed including mosques. About 40 to 50 tanks are taking part in the bombardment.” (Reuters)

“I don’t know how many are dead – they tore Zawiyah down to ashes,” a source in the town told BBC.

In the east, much of which is under rebel control, warplanes bombed rebel positions around the oil port of Ras Lanuf. Revolutionary euphoria seemed to have dimmed. “People are dying out there. Gaddafi’s forces have rockets and tanks,” Abdel Salem Mohammed, 21, told Reuters near Ras Lanuf. “You see this? This is no good,” he said of his light machine gun.

The rebel leadership said that if Gaddafi stepped down within 72 hours it would not seek to bring him to justice. “If he leaves Libya immediately, during 72 hours, and stops the bombardment, we as LIbyans will step back from pursuing him for crimes,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council, told Al Jazeera television. (Reuters) Earlier, the rebels said they had rejected an offer from the Libyan leader to negotiate his surrender of power. The government called such reports “absolute nonsense.” (Reuters)

The CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault, reporting from the capital of Tripoli, said government officials there played down reports of the deal. “There seems to be an emboldened mood in the pro-Gaddafi camp,” she said.

The CBC’s Nahlah Ayed, reporting from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, said the rebel council denied there was a disagreement among rebel leaders, despite the contradictions. “So it kind of leaves you scratching your head,” she said. “Did they misspeak? Was this a political… misstep of some kind and now this is kind of damage control? Or is there a rift between the rebels. [It’s] very difficult to determine here at the moment.” (CBC)

The report doesn’t sit well with many of Benghazi’s citizens, said Ayed. The rebellion against Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime began in mid-February in Benghazi, which has become the focal point of the uprising and the headquarters of the national council. “They just cannot imagine that after 42 years, with the kind of rule that he’s had here, he could simply walk away with any kind of money that they feel is theres,” she said. Residents of the city also told Ayed about how their loved ones had been imprisoned for years without the benefit of a legal process and tortured. “Because just about everybody we’ve talked to has been touched by what they call the brutality of this regime.” (CBC)

Britain and France led a drive at the U.N. for a no-fly zone which would prevent Gaddafi from unleashing air raids or moving reinforcements by air. The Arab League and several Gulf states have also called for such a step.

“It is unacceptable that Colonel Gaddafi unleashes so much violence on his own people and we are all gravely concerned about what would happen if he were to try to do that on an even greater basis,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. (Reuters)

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, expressed what seemed to be the prevailing European opinion on Tuesday when he said the preconditions for a no-flight zone were “regional support, a clear trigger for such a resolution and an appropriate legal basis.” (New York Times)

Russia and China, who have veto power in the U.N. Security Council, are cool toward the idea of a no-fly zone.

The U.S. government, whose interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan enraged many of the world’s Muslims, said it was weighting up military options and that action should be taken only with international backing. The White House, which has resisted growing bipartisan support for a no-flight zone and other limited means of supporting the rebels militarily, said the measure might not be effective against helicopters, which could be capable of inflicting devastating casualties on the rebels. Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates, who last week expressed deep skepticism about the idea, softened his opposition somewhat on Monday, telling reporters any action had to have international support.

Hafiz Ghoga, spokesman for the rebel National Libyan Council, told a news conference in the rebel base of Benghazi: “We will complete our victory when we are afforded a no-fly zone. If there was also action to stop him (Gaddafi) from recruiting mercenaries, his end would come within hours.” (Reuters) “In reality, there is no such proposal,” said Ghoga. “There is no official liaison who was contacted about this proposal. At the moment, there is no initiative whatever with this regime.” (New York Times)

Rebels still controlled the central square of Zawiyah, 50 km west of Tripoli, on Tuesday and were using loud hailers to urge residents to defend their positions, said a Ghanaian worker who fled the town on Tuesday. Sky television footage of fighting in the town over the weekend showed crowds fleeing gunfire and a blood-spattered hospital crammed with the injured, some making victory signs from stretchers. It showed bodies of dead soldiers, others it said had switched sides, and captured tanks.

A government spokesman insisted troops were mostly in control on Tuesday. “Maybe 30-40 people, hiding in the streets and in the cemetery. They are desperate,” he said in Tripoli. (Reuters)

A Libyan man who lives abroad said he spoke by phone on Tuesday to a friend in Zawiyah who described desperate scenes. “Many buildings are completely destroyed, including hospitals, electricity lines and generators,” he said. “People cannot run away. It’s cordoned off. They cannot flee. All those who can fight are fighting, including teenagers. Children and women are being hidden.” They were firing everywhere, he said. (Reuters )

The reports could not be verified independently as foreign correspondents have been prevented from entering Zawiyah and other cities near the capital without an official escort.

Air strikes hit at rebels behind the no-man’s land between the coastal towns of Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, 550 km east of Tripoli and the site of oil terminals. One strike smashed a house in a residential area of Ras Lanuf, gouging a big hole in the ground floor.

Mustafa Askat, an oil worker, said one bomb had wrecked a water pipeline and this would affect water supplies to the city. “We have a hospital inside, we have sick people and they need water urgently,” he said. (Reuters)

A convoy from the U.N. food agency was scheduled to reach the rebel-held port of Benghazi on Tuesday to deliver the first food aid in Libya since the revolt erupted three weeks ago. Aid officials said the number of refugees crossing the border into Tunisia had slowed. It was unclear whether that was because they were being held back or were afraid to make the journey.

The rebel army – a rag-tag outfit largely made up of young volunteers and military defectors – made swift gains in the first week of the uprising which saw them take control of the east and challenge the government near Tripoli. But their momentum appears to have stalled as Gaddafi’s troops have pushed back with heavy weapons.

Rebels said government forces had dug in their tanks near Bin Jawad while rebels retreated to Ras Lanuf. The two towns are about 60 km apart on the strategic coastal road along the Mediterranean sea.

Libyan troops besieging the rebel-held city of Misrata left on Tuesday driving east toward Sirte with other pro-Gaddafi troops coming from Tripoli, a resident said by telephone. Sirte, birthplace and stronghold of Gaddafi, lies on the coastal road to an emergency front line which divides the country along ancient regional lines with key oil facilities stuck in the middle.

Gaddafi has denounced the rebels as drug-addled youths or al-Qaeda-backed terrorists, and he said he will die in Libya rather than surrender.

In an interview with the pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya on Monday night, Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saadi said his father’s departure would trigger an intra-tribal civil war. “There are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, who all support the leader, and all of them are armed tribes,” Saadi said. “If something happens to the leader or steps down, who will control these tribes then? This means that an unmerciful civil war will take place.” He added: “Under the current circumstances and given domestic and foreign threats, if the leader steps down or if these tribes decide to disobey the leader, each one will act on its own, and we will face a civil war like in Somalia or Afghanistan.” (New York Times) He also appeared to pull back the curtain on sibling rivalry within the Gaddafi household.

Gaddafi family unity is vital to the government in part because some of the sons command private militias or play important roles in national defence, including one who is national security adviser. Another, Saif el-Islam Gaddafi, has become Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent and the public face of reformist attempts to open up Libyan politics.

Complaining that all his own personal initiatives for Libya were thwarted, Saadi Gaddafi contended that for the last four years Saif, not their father, was in fact “the person who used to run the show everyday in Libya.” He said that Colonel Gaddafi told Saif and the country’s top ministers, “You have to run the show, you have to run the affairs, take care of people, tribes, cities, and the budget.” (New York Times)

Yousef Shakir, an adviser to the Libyan cabinet, said: “The Libyan Army has, for the first time, taken a decision to cleanse the Libyan cities and will move to Benghazi.” (BBC)

Representatives of the Libyan opposition were meeting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Strasbourg on Tuesday evening before addressing the European Parliament. EU states agreed to add the $70 billion Libyan Investment Authority to a sanctions list on Tuesday. The embargo already covers 26 Libyans including Gaddafi and his family.

The Libyan uprising is the bloodiest of a tide of protests against autocratic rulers in North Africa and Middle East which has already seen the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt dethroned. The phenomenon has left the West struggling to formulate a new direction for a region that sits on vast reserves of oil. Brent crude futures for April delivery fell $1.94 to $113.10 a barrel by 1737 GMT (12:37 p.m.), after rising sharply on Monday. Libyan oil trade has virtually been paralyzed as banks decline to clear payments in dollars to U.S. sanctions, trading sources told Reuters on Tuesday.

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