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US moves forces closer to Libya as Qaddafi escalates crackdown
Libyans opposed to Muammar Qaddafi load bullets for a heavy machine gun at a military base in Benghazi on Monday in preparation for any attack from the ruler's loyalists. (AP)
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By MAGGIE MICHAEL | AP
Published: Mar 1, 2011 01:23 Updated: Mar 1, 2011 04:10
TRIPOLI, Libya: International pressure on Muammar Qaddafi to end his crackdown on opponents escalated Monday as his loyalists closed in on rebel-held cities nearest the capital. The US moved naval and air forces closer to Libya and said all options were open, including the use of warplanes to patrol the North African nation’s skies and protect citizens threatened by their leader.
France said it would fly aid to the opposition-controlled eastern half of the country. The European Union imposed an arms embargo and other sanctions, following the lead of the US and the UN The EU was also considering the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya. And the US and Europe were freezing billions in Libya’s foreign assets.
“Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to govern, and it is time for him to go without further violence or delay,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “No option is off the table. That of course includes a no-fly zone,” she added. British Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers: “We do not in any way rule out the use of military assets” to deal with Qaddafi’s regime.
Qaddafi, who in the past two weeks has launched the most brutal crackdown of any Arab regime facing a wave of popular uprisings, laughed off a question from ABC News about whether he would step down as the Obama administration demands.
“My people love me. They would die for me,” he said. ABC reported that Qaddafi invited the UN or any other organization to Libya on a fact-finding mission.
The turmoil in the oil-rich nation roiled markets for another day. Libya’s oil chief said production had been cut by around 50 percent, denting supplies that go primarily to Europe.
The uprising that began Feb. 15 has posed most serious challenge to Qaddafi in his more than four decades in power. His bloody crackdown has left hundreds, and perhaps thousands, dead. But clashes appear to have eased considerably in the past few days after planeloads of foreign journalists arrived in the capital at the government’s invitation.
The two sides are entrenched, and the direction the uprising takes next could depend on which can hold out longest. Qaddafi is dug in in Tripoli and nearby cities, backed by his elite security forces and militiamen who are generally better armed than the military. His opponents, holding the east and much of the country’s oil infrastructure, also control pockets in western Libya near Tripoli. They are backed by mutinous army units, but those forces appear to have limited supplies of ammunition and weapons.
Qaddafi opponents have moved to consolidate their hold in the east, centered on Benghazi — Libya’s second- largest city, where the uprising began. Politicians there on Sunday set up their first leadership council to manage day-to-day affairs, taking a step toward forming what could be an alternative to Qaddafi’s regime.
The opposition is backed by numerous units of the military in the east that joined the uprising, and they hold several bases and Benghazi’s airport. But so far, the units do not appear to have melded into a unified fighting force.
Qaddafi long kept the military weak, fearing a challenge to his rule, so many units are plagued by shortages of supplies and ammunition.
On Monday, pro-Qaddafi forces retook control of the western border crossings with Tunisia that had fallen under opposition control and they bombed an ammunition depot in the rebel-held east, residents in the area said. The Libyan Defense Ministry denied the bombing.
Regime forces also moved to tighten their ring around two opposition-controlled cities closest to the capital Tripoli — Zawiya and Misrata — where the two sides are locked in standoffs.
An Associated Press reporter saw a large, pro-Qaddafi force massed on the western edge of Zawiya, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, with about a dozen armored vehicles along with tanks and jeeps mounted with anti-aircraft guns. An officer said they were from the elite Khamis Brigade, named after one of Qaddafi’s sons who commands it. US diplomats have said the brigade is the best-equipped force in Libya.
Residents inside the city said they were anticipating a possible attack.
“Our people are waiting for them to come and, God willing, we will defeat them,” one resident who only wanted to be quoted by his first name, Alaa, told AP in Cairo by telephone.
In Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli, pro-Qaddafi troops who control part of an air base on the outskirts tried to advance Monday. But they were repulsed by opposition forces, who included residents with automatic weapons and defected army units allied with them, one of the opposition fighters said.
No casualties were reported and the fighter claimed that his side had captured eight soldiers, including a senior officer.
The opposition controls most of the air base, and the fighter said dozens of anti-Qaddafi gunmen have arrived from farther east in recent days as reinforcements.
Several residents of the eastern city of Ajdabiya said Qaddafi’s air force also bombed an ammunition depot nearby held by rebels. One resident, 17-year-old Abdel-Bari Zwei, reported intermittent explosions and a fire, and another, Faraj Al-Maghrabi, said the facility was partially damaged.
The site contains bombs, missiles and ammunition — key for the undersupplied opposition military forces.
State TV carried a statement by Libya’s Defense Ministry denying any attempt to bomb the depot. Ajdabiya is about 450 miles (750 kilometers) east of Tripoli along the Mediterranean coast.
Qaddafi supporters said they were in control of the city of Sabratha, west of Tripoli, which has seemed to go back and forth between the two camps in the past week. Several residents told the AP that protesters set fire to a police station, but then were dispersed. Anti-Qaddafi graffiti — “Down with the enemy of freedom” and “Libya is free, Qaddafi must leave” — were scrawled on some walls, but residents were painting them over.
There were signs of economic distress in the country, with long lines forming for bread and gasoline.
Global efforts to halt Qaddafi’s crackdown escalated Monday.
In Washington, the Pentagon said it was moving some naval and air forces closer to Libya in case they are needed. The US has a regular military presence in the Mediterranean and farther to the south has two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf area.
The US Treasury Department said that at least $30 billion in Libyan assets have been frozen since President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Libya last week.
France promised to send two planes with humanitarian aid the eastern opposition stronghold city of Benghazi, hoping to give it the momentum to oust Qaddafi. The aid to included medicine and doctors, would be the first direct Western help for the uprising that has taken control of the entire eastern half of Libya. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it was the start of a “massive operation of humanitarian support” for the east and that Paris was studying “all solutions” — including military options.
The EU slapped its own arms embargo, visa ban and other sanctions on Qaddafi’s regime, following sanctions imposed by the US and the UN in the past week. And Europe was also considering the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent any air attacks by the regime on rebellious citizens.
Clinton met in Geneva with foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany and Italy to press for tough sanctions on the Libyan government.
I am fearful for interfering by Western countries in Libya, who want to take control over oil and make this country like another Iraq or Afghanistan. May Allah save this Muslim country from this treacherous enemies like West and Israel, whose intentions I see do not look good. West always use some kind of excuse to get in for humanitarian assistance but I doubt their evil intention. I know, Gaddafy is a bad guy but these western enemies are far worst than him. They feel that Gaddafy is commiting atrocities but what about Israel, who has been doing far worst for last 60 years! Where is U.N. and America, when matter comes to Palestinian people.
MUSLIM SISTER Mar 1, 2011 11:49 Report abuse
Dear Lybans may Allah make you brave and strong aganist your enemy but be very careful of the Western backers as they only look after THEIR INTERESTS. May Allah bless all the Arabs as they shake the shacklesof their fear. Let there be only the fear of Allah. May Allah bless all the people with peace, dignity and justice.
CHRIS GERSCHLER Mar 1, 2011 11:50 Report abuse
Please help these citizens, these are Fathers, Mothers, Children and Grandparents trying to make a better life for themselves. They are being treated as gold fish in a barrel, shot and killed for trying to make thier voices heard. I would not be able to go to work and produce for my place of employment if I knew that my family could be killed by the government with some state sponcered mercianorys. Please pray for these people and step up to the plate to take care of thier well being!
MOINUDDIN KHAWAJA Mar 1, 2011 11:50 Report abuse
This is not acceptable and i forcasted my comments two weeks ago that United state and NATO forces may come and grab Libya to improve their economy.This is golden chance for them to sit here and control egypt and Africa and sudan. After Iraq now Libya. Please oppose this and immidiately Egypt should move his army to get rid of Mr Qaddafi as soon as posible.
MUSSOKHATTAK Mar 1, 2011 12:02 Report abuse
No wonder the US are the most hated nation in the world !!! Muddling in every one's affair. Dogs should tied properly