Troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi on Wednesday positioned tanks for the first time along the main road connecting the strategic eastern city of Ajdabiya to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, effectively splitting the forces opposing Gaddafi in two, according to rebel commanders, fighters and witnesses.
Gaddafi’s troops coming from the west had blocked parts of Ajdabiya and were now barring entry from the northeast, they said. Rebel forces remained inside the city and had engaged in fierce fighting with Gaddafi loyalists who stormed the city on Tuesday before withdrawing to the outskirts. Ajdabiya, a city of 170,000 people, is the last line of defence before Benghazi, the cradle of the populist uprising that seeks to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
“They started at the western gate to the city, then encircled Ajdabiya and arrived at the eastern gate,” said Zaid Al-Libi, who described himself as a military advisor and used a nom de guerre. “Gaddafi’s forces are now near the eastern gate.” (Washington Post)
Other fighters on this front line, about 10 miles away from Ajdabiya, confirmed his assessment on Wednesday afternoon. “A few of their tanks are down the road,” said Yahya el Mugasabi, a fighter who arrived form the direction of Ajdabiya. “We’ve been firing a lot of weapons at each other.” (Washington Post)
Along the road from Benghazi to Ajdabiya, the rebels appear to be preparing for a possible offensive by Gaddafi’s forces on Benghazi. Three rebel tanks, each roughly a mile apart, were parked along the road, their turrets pointed in the direction of Ajdabiya. Rebel fighters congregated at towns along the way, some waiting for orders, others headed back to Benghazi or returning towards the front line in Zuwaytinah and beyond.
In interviews, many said they were prepared to fight hard to prevent forces from seizing Ajdabiya. “Tonight, we will fight them inside the city,” predicted Al-Libi. (Washington Post)
In the distance, the heavy thuds of bombardment could be heard. Civilians and fighters said Gaddafi’s forcer had barraged Ajdabiya with artillery and rockets on Tuesday evening and throughout Wednesday morning. Gaddafi’s forces appeared to be deploying similar tactics they had used to capture other rebel-held towns such as Zawiyah: A combination of shelling and staging raids into urban areas, engaging in firefights, then retreating to the outskirts of the town at night.
Hundreds of residents, mostly women and children, fled Ajdabiya Tuesday with whatever they could carry.
Libyan state television asserted that Ajdabiya had “been cleansed of mercenaries and terrorists linked to the al-Qaeda organization,” referring to the rebels. (Washington Post)
An activist hiding out in Ajdabiya said rebel holdouts in the city were experiencing reinforcements from Benghazi to arrive and help them regroup. He said that the shelling stopped at about 2 p.m., but clashes continued on the southern and eastern fringes of the city. “We are optimistic,” Abdel-Bari Zwei said by cell phone as he headed to a nearby mosque for night prayers. “Yes, the families left but the youths and the men are still here.” (The Star)
The assault on Tuesday was the latest sign that the forces that have fueled the Arab spring over the past few weeks are coming under pressure that might prove insurmountable. In Bahrain, the government has declared a state of emergency and invited Saudi troops to quell unrest. In Yemen, police fired bullets and tear gas at protesters on Sunday, a day after security forces killed seven demonstrators in protests across the country.
Mohammed Ali, an opposition activist based in Dubai, said he was in contact with people in Misrata and water, electricity and cell phone service had been cut off. At least eight people were killed and 11 injured in the attack, he said, although the toll could not be confirmed. (The Star)
In Libya, the rebels are up against a military force that is far superior and have ben able to persuade foreign powers to intervene militarily. On Tuesday, recommendations from France and Britain for a no-fly zone over Libya were rebuffed by foreign ministers from the Group of Eight countries.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe lamented that Western powers had “missed an opportunity to shift the balance… If we had used military force last week to neutralize some runways and the several dozen airplanes at Gaddafi’s disposal, maybe the reversal that is happening now to the opposition’s disadvantage would not have taken place,” Juppe told Europe 1 radio. (Washington Post)
The seizure of Ajdabiya by Gaddafi’s forces would deliver a severe tactical and psychological blow to the rebel movement and bring Benghazi, 99 miles north of Ajdabiya, within their sights. Ajdabiya sits at the nexus of highways that would allow Gaddafi’s forces to either mount a frontal assault on Benghazi or encircle and place a chokehold on it and other pro-rebel cities along the Mediterranean coast.
On the front lines, rebel fighters increasingly accused the movement’s leadership of not providing them with adequate military equipment or experienced officers to lead them, despite public promises by senior commanders.
On Sunday, Abdul Fattah Younis, the head of the rebel armed forces and Gaddafi’s former interior minister, declared that conventional forces, most of them defected soldiers from Gaddafi’s army, were playing a significant combat role. But they were nowhere to be seen Tuesday on what was perhaps the most pivotal battlefront of the rebellion.
“See the scars on my face. Since the morning, I have been fighting on the front. I am tired,” said Mohammed Gassar, 31, a former water company employee. “Where is the army? We need heavy weapons, we need leadership.” (Washington Post)
Others expressed anger at the international community, accusing it of betraying their cause and leaving them to face Gaddafi on their own. “These politicians are liars. They just talk and talk, but they do nothing,” said Mohammed al-Gunati, 30, a driver who stood behind a machine gun. “Where is America? Where are the Europeans? Even the Arabs, they are all just the same. They keep quiet. They just watch us as we die.” (Washington Post) Minutes later, fighters spotted two reconnaissance planes high in the sky and began to futilely fire their machine guns in the air, wasting scores of bullets.
“People are fed up. They are waiting impatiently for an international move,” said Saadoun al-Misrati, a rebel spokesman in the city of Misrata, the last rebel-held city in the west, which came under heavy shelling Wednesday. “What Gaddafi is doing, he is exploiting delays by international community. People are very angry that no action is being taken against Gaddafi’s weaponry.” (The Star)
Jamal Mansour, a rebel commander, said: “There’s heavy fighting around Ajdabiya, they’re carrying out a scorched-earth policy… There’s heavy, sustained tank shelling and earlier there were air strikes, but now the revolutionaries managed to take seven tanks from those dogs and, God willing, we will succeed.” (BBC)
Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, warned the rebels the regime was closing in on them and urged them to leave the country. “We don’t want to kill, we don’t want revenge, but you, traitors, mercenaries, you have committed crimes against the Libyan people: leave, go in peace to Egypt,” he said in an interview with Lyon, France-based EuroNews TV. “Military operations are over. Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi. Whatever the decision, it will be too late.” (The Star)
Opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said rebels in Benghazi would be ready for an attack. “A large percentage of Benghazi’s population is armed. Can Gaddafi bomb the city? Sure he can. Can he go in? I don’t think so,” he told the Associated Press. “Also, I think it is too far for his supply lines.” (The Star)
Gheriani said anti-aircraft equipment has been deployed, and the army mobilized, although he didn’t know where. There have been few signs in recent days of the rebels digging in defensive preparations on the city’s outskirts.
Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya with an iron fist for four decades, has remained defiant through the four-week uprising to oust him. The Libyan leader appeared on national state television Tuesday, calling the rebels “rats” and accusing Western nations of wanting the country’s oil. Earlier in the week, Gaddafi said he was not like Tunisian and Egyptian leaders who fell after massive anti-government protests earlier this year. “I’m very different from them,” he said in an interview published Tuesday in the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. “People are on my side and give me strength.” (CBC)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all sides to accept an immediate cease-fire and warned that “a campaign to bombard such an urban centre would massively place civilian lives at risk.” (The Star)
One encouraging sign for the rebels were growing indications that the Obama administration was changing course and had now decided to ask the United Nations Security Council to act decisively to halt the Gaddafi forces before they reach Benghazi.
“We are moving as rapidly as we can in New York to see if we can get addition authorization for the international community to look at a broad range of actions, not just a no-fly zone but other actions as well,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday. “The turning point was really the Arab League statement on Saturday. That was an extraordinarily statement in which the Arab League asked for Security Council action against one of its own members.” (New York Times)
Meanwhile, four journalists covering the fighting in Libya for the New York Times are missing, the newspaper said Wednesday. The New York Times said the journalists, who included two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, were last in contact with their editors Tuesday morning from the town of Ajdabiya. Also missing were Stephen Farrell – a reporter and videographer who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2009 and rescued by British commandos – and two photographers, Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, the newspaper said.
“We have talked with officials of the Libyan government in Tripoli, and they tell us they are attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of our journalists,” Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, said in a statement. (Reuters) He said the Libyan government had assured the Times that if the journalists have been captured, they would be released promptly and unharmed. “Their families and their colleagues at The Times are anxiously seeking information about their situation, and praying that they are safe,” Keller said. (CNN)
Addario, a freelancer based in India, recently won a MacArthur Fellowship – known as a “genius grant” – for her photography around the world In an e-mail Monday to CNN correspondent Ivan Watson, Addario called the Libya story “one of the most dangerous” of her career. The e-mail said, “Gaddafi’s forces heading back east, and the rebels are surrendering along the way… so exhausted. This story has been one of the most dangerous I have ever covered. Getting bombed from the air and by land.” (CNN)
A Brazilian reporter was freed by government forces in Libya last week, but a journalist from Britain’s Guardian newspaper remains missing.
A BBC news team also said last week it had been detained by Libyan security forces, beaten and subjected to mock execution after they were arrested at a checkpoint.