Libyan Rebels Said to Debate Seeking U.N. Airstrikes
New volunteer fighters loyal to the opposition movement attended their first day of training at a base in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, on Tuesday.Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
By Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick
March 1, 2011
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BENGHAZI, Libya — In a sign of mounting frustration among rebel leaders over Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s diminished but unyielding grip on power, rebel leaders here are debating whether to ask for Western airstrikes under the United Nations banner, according to four people with knowledge of the deliberations.
By invoking the United Nations, a council of opposition leaders made up of lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures is seeking to draw a distinction between such airstrikes and foreign intervention, which the rebels said they emphatically opposed.
“He destroyed the army; we have two or three planes,” said a spokesman for the council, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga. He refused to say if there would be any imminent announcement about such strikes, but he wanted to make it clear: “If it is with the United Nations, it is not a foreign intervention.”
That distinction is lost on many people, and any call for foreign military help carries great risks.
The antigovernment protesters in Libya, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, have drawn broad popular support — and great pride — from their status as homegrown movements that have defied autocrats without outside help.
Any intervention, even one with the imprimatur of the United Nations, could play into the hands of Colonel Qaddafi, who has called the uprising a foreign plot by Western powers that seek to occupy Libya.
“If he falls with no intervention, I’d be happy,” one rebel leader said. “But if he’s going to commit a massacre, my priority is to save my people.”
Rebels ransacked and burned a security building in Benghazi. Tensions were high after the government retook a rebel-held oil refinery and bombed other targets.Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
There was no indication that the United Nations Security Council’s members would approve such a request, or that most Libyans who are seeking to topple Colonel Qaddafi would welcome it. Among the Security Council’s members, Russia has dismissed talk of a no-fly zone to curb strikes by the Libyan Air Force still under Colonel Qaddafi’s control, and China usually votes against foreign intervention.
The discussions appeared to signal a rebel movement that is impatient with a military stalemate that has crippled the country. The airstrikes’ supporters hoped they might dislodge Colonel Qaddafi from crucial strongholds, including a fortified compound in the capital, Tripoli.
The council is considering strikes against only the compound and assets like radar stations, according to the people briefed on the discussions, who requested anonymity because no formal decision had been made.
The United States acknowledged the sensitivity concerning outside intervention.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the Obama administration knew that the Libyan opposition was eager to be seen “as doing this by themselves on behalf of the Libyan people — that there not be outside intervention by any external force.”
Tensions were high in Benghazi on Tuesday, the day after government warplanes attacked sites south of the city and special forces retook a rebel-held oil refinery at Ras Lanuf in central Libya.
Rebel soldiers drove a convoy of pickup trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns through the streets of Benghazi, and officers welcomed journalists at a base near the airport, where volunteers were learning to how to operate the weapons.
The training was far from complete: while one of the antiaircraft weapons was being fired, a large metal chunk flew off the gun and landed in the street.
Despite bold stands against government forces, and tremendous gains in territory, the military commanders allied with the rebels seemed unsure about how the effort to topple Colonel Qaddafi would play out. The Libyan leader commands loyalty in his hometown, Surt, whose location on a road that links eastern and western Libya is strategically important.
Rebels Continue to Move Against Qaddafi
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Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
But of particular concern to the rebels is the colonel’s reinforced bunker, which is known as Bab al-Aziziya and is said to contain tunnels for easy escape. “It is designed to resist an atomic attack,” said Ramdan Jarbou, a writer who is advising the rebel council.
Faced with those realities, the council in Benghazi began talking about help from abroad. A heated discussion pitted several people — including those who dismissed the idea out of hand as a point of honor — against others who saw no option but to call in the airstrikes to end the bloodshed.
Another member of the rebel leadership who supported the idea said: “It should have been done three days ago. But it’s a burden to take this responsibility. It’s like you’re a traitor.” The leader said the council had reached a consensus to request the airstrikes.
As council members left the meeting on Tuesday evening, Ali Abubaker, 40, a trader, said it would take “big pressure” to remove Colonel Qaddafi. “We don’t want to be in the situation where the people are turning against one another,” he said, warning of the threat of civil war. “We’d like the honor of the Libyan people doing it themselves. But perhaps we need help.”
Others strongly disagreed.
“No foreign intervention in Libya,” said Essam al-Tawargi, an engineer. “With our guns, with our potential, we can bring Qaddafi down.”
That conviction was tested on Tuesday in Nalut, a city on the Tunisian border that the rebels said they now controlled, in part because local army units refused to fight them. “They said we cannot and we will not kill you because we are all Libyan,” a rebel who gave his name only as Ayman said in a telephone interview.
He said that soldiers working for Colonel Qaddafi still controlled the border but could not enter the city and that defectors from local army units had helped residents arm themselves. “At first we didn’t have weapons, so we didn’t use them,” Ayman said. “But in this war we need weapons, so we get weapons from our soldiers in our army — they have given them to us.”
He said that the people in the mountain region near Nalut rose in rebellion after hearing reports of massacres in Benghazi. “They are my brothers,” he said, “so of course I will fight for them.”
David D. Kirkpatrick reports from Tripoli, where after a night of fighting, Libyan rebels appear to have control of the city.
He said the rebels in the mountains would march on Tripoli “when all of our region is free.”
Rebels also said they continued to hold Zawiyah, an oil port just 30 miles from the capital, after fighting off an assault by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces on Monday night.
But they kept an anxious watch on the barricades; the government’s forces were heavily deployed just outside town. “Everything is all right, but there are army tanks on a farm outside the main gate from Tripoli,” said a rebel who used the name Faisal.
Some fighters had begun to refer to their town as “the Zawiyah State.”
Inside Tripoli, residents of the working class suburb of Tajoura described a massacre that they said had been carried out by pro-government forces last week.
The soldiers, they said, repeatedly drove through the neighborhood shooting at crowds and buildings, usually from Toyota Tundra pickup trucks but occasionally from the backs of ambulances.
They said one resident, a mother named Fatama Ragebi, had been killed by a stray bullet in her home and was buried on Saturday.
They repeated reports that the security forces had not only fired into crowds but also carried off the dead and wounded, sometimes from the hospitals.
The residents named 17 neighbors who they said had been killed and eight who had disappeared from just one street.
Few could agree on what would come next. Some said they were waiting for help in the form of weapons from the bastions of rebellion outside of Tripoli, like Benghazi.
Others vowed that “the people are going to free themselves by themselves.”
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