March 24 2011
Muammar Qaddafi’s forces intensified the shelling of rebel positions outside a strategic eastern city Wednesday as they fought to prevent the opposition from taking advantage of the 5-day-old international air campaign to regroup in the east.
Western diplomats, meanwhile, said an agreement was emerging about NATO would take responsibility for a no-fly zone over Libya after the United States which has effectively commanded the operation until now — reiterated that it was committed to the transition.
NATO warships were to begin patrolling off Libya’s coast Wednesday to enforce the UN arms embargo.
In what has become a common pattern, pro-Qaddafi troops who have besieged Ajdabiya — a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east — attacked a few hundred rebels gathered on the outskirts. The rebels fired back with Katyusha rockets but have found themselves outgunned by the Libyan government’s force.
Plumes of smoke rose over the city’s skyline.
“Some of those cities still have tanks advancing on them to attack the Libyan people,” said Rear Admiral Peg Klein, commander of the expeditionary strike group aboard the USS Kearsarge off Libya, adding:
“We are authorized, and the president made the nexus between the Security Council resolution and what he considers our legal mandate to attack those tanks. So that is the type of target that our strike aircraft will go at.”
Fawzi Hamid, a 33-year-old who joined the Libyan military when he was younger but is now on the rebels’ side, said: “The weapons they have are heavy weapons and what we have are light weapons.”
“The Qaddafi forces are more powerful than us so we are depending on airstrikes,” he added. The rebels and Qaddafi’s forces have been locked in a standoff over Ajdabiya for more than a week, with neither side able to muster enough force to take the city outright.
Sami, a resident of Misrata, told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday: “The situation is relatively calm but snipers are still positioned on the rooftops of buildings.”
“We heard a sound this morning but we don’t know if it was a bombardment by tanks or an explosion caused by air strikes.”
At least two explosions were also heard in the Libyan capital Tripoli before dawn on Wednesday on a fourth night of strikes, Reuters witnesses said. The roar of a warplane was heard above the city followed by a barrage of anti-aircraft gunfire.
In the east of this oil-producing North African desert state, disorganized and badly equipped rebels failed to capitalize on air strikes and are pinned down.
The fighters have been unable to dislodge Qaddafi’s forces from the key junction of Ajdabiyah in the east bringing a big risk of stalemate on the ground, security analysts say.
‘A bunch of fascists’
Qaddafi was defiant in his first public appearance in a week late Tuesday, promising enthusiastic supporters at his residential compound in Tripoli, “In the short term, we’ll beat them, in the long term, we’ll beat them.” Libyan state TV broadcast what it said was live coverage of Qaddafi’s less-than-five-minute statement. Standing on a balcony, he denounced the coalition bombing attacks on his forces.
“O great Libyan people, you have to live now, this time of glory, this is a time of glory that we are living,” he said.
“We will not surrender,” he also told supporters forming a human shield to protect him at his Tripoli compound, which came under attack in 1986 from the US Reagan administration and once again in the current round of air strikes.
“We will defeat them by any means … We are ready for the fight, whether it will be a short or a long one … We will be victorious in the end,” he said in a live television broadcast, his first public appearance since the air strikes began.
“This assault … is by a bunch of fascists who will end up in the dustbin of history,” Qaddafi said in a speech followed by fireworks in the Libyan capital as crowds cheered and supporters fired guns into the air.
The Libyan government denies its army is conducting any offensive operations and says troops are only defending themselves when they come under attack.
It was impossible to independently verify the reports.
The siege of Misrata, now weeks old, is becoming increasingly desperate, with water cut off for days and food running out, doctors operating on patients in hospital corridors and many of the wounded left untreated or simply turned away.
“The situation in the local hospital is disastrous,” said a Misrata doctor. “The doctors and medical teams are exhausted beyond human physical ability and some of them cannot reach the hospital because of tanks and snipers.”
The rebel effort in the desert scrub of east Libya was bogged down outside Ajdabiyah, with no movement on the strategic town since Qaddafi’s remaining tanks holed up there after the government’s armoured advance along the open road to Benghazi was blown to bits by French air strikes on Saturday night.
Hiding in the dunes
Hiding in the sand dunes from the tank fire coming from the town, the rebels are without heavy weapons, leadership, communication, or even a plan.
On Tuesday, groups of fighters lounged around, chatting and smoking cigarettes. This was the spearhead of the counter-offensive.
When asked who was in command, one fighter, Mohamed Bhreka, shrugged and said: “Nobody is. We are volunteers. We just come here. There is no plan.”
Their heavy machine guns were bolted to the back of pick-up trucks and there was a good supply of assault rifles. But some just had knives or iron bars. Field radios were not to be seen.
Fighters on the frontline of the uprising against Qaddafi said they had lost the heavy weapons vital to take on tanks.
It remains to be seen whether the rebel’s bravado and faith in God are enough to take towns and advance toward their target of capturing Tripoli.
Western warplanes have flown more than 300 sorties over Libya and more than 162 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired in the United Nations-mandated mission to protect Libyan civilians against government troops.
US President Barack Obama said the allies should be able to announce soon that they have achieved the objective of creating the no-fly zone.
But, he said, Qaddafi would present a potential threat to his people “unless he is willing to step down.”
“We will continue to support the efforts to protect the Libyan people. But we will not be in the lead,” Obama said.
Obama, facing questions at home about the Libyan mission, duration and cost, wants the United States to give up operational control of enforcing the no-fly zone within days.
Obama spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday and they agreed NATO should play an important role in enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone, the White House said.
France had been against a NATO role for fear of alienating Arab support. Turkey also opposed the alliance taking command as it said air strikes had already overstepped what was authorized by the United Nations. US officials said both countries’ objections had been overcome.
The plan is for NATO’s command structure to be used for the operations under the political leadership of a “steering body” made up of Western and Arab nations who are members of the alliance policing Libya’s skies, diplomats said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday foreign ministers of countries taking part in the military action were set to meet in the coming days to create a clear political structure for operations.
“I’ve proposed with the agreement of our British colleagues that we set up a political structure to guide operations, involving foreign ministers from countries that are taking part and from the Arab League,” Juppe told the French parliament.
While Qaddafi scoffed at the West in his latest speech, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Libyan leader and his allies may be exploring exile options, although it was unclear if he would seriously contemplate stepping aside.
“Some of it is theater,” Clinton told ABC News in an interview, saying Washington was aware of people reaching out “allegedly on Qaddafi’s behalf” to try to assess their options.
“A lot of it is just the way he behaves. It’s somewhat unpredictable. But some of it, we think, is exploring. You know, what are my options, where could I go, what could I do. And we would encourage that,” she said.
Clinton also said the US government had received unconfirmed reports that at least one of Qaddafi’s sons may have been killed in air strikes. She said the “evidence is not sufficient” to confirm the reports, but added it was not US forces that would have killed him.