Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Libya's opposition says its fighters are executing a "tactical withdrawal" from a swath of territory they once controlled, a move that comes as Moammar Gadhafi's forces relentlessly pound the rebel forces.

Col. Ahmed Bani, speaking at a news conference in the opposition capital of Benghazi on Wednesday, said his forces are being outgunned by superior military power.

They have been pushed eastward over the last two days after CNN reported on Sunday that rebels took al-Brega, Ras Lanuf, Bin Jawad and reached a town just east of Sirte.

Opposition forces have lost Bin Jawad, the key oil town of Ras Lanuf and are now backed up to the al-Brega area, said Bani. Ajdabiya, which is east of al-Brega, will be prepared as a "defense point" if the withdrawal continues further east, he said.

This development comes as NATO took over command of the coalition enforcing a U.N. resolution to protect Libyan civilians and world powers are now mulling the option of arming the rebels.

Bani called on the international community to supply opposition fighters with better and more powerful weapons to thwart the Gadhafi forces. And, he said, the opposition was open to foreign troops training rebel fighters. Bani asked for tanks, heavy artillery, communications and logistics equipment.

The rebels have been demanding an end to Gadhafi's almost 42-year rule in Libya, but they have been facing "sustained attacks in the face of the coalition bombing" in Misrata, Ras Lanuf, and Bin Jawad.

In an address to the House of Commons in London on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that "regime forces have intensified their attacks, driving back opposition forces from ground they had taken in recent days." He cited the violence in the western town of Misrata.

"Misrata also came under heavy attack yesterday, with further loss of civilian life, including children, from mortars, sniper fire and attacks on all sides from regime tanks and personnel carriers," Hague said.

"One obstacle to humanitarian support for the people of Misrata has been regime vessels trying to blockade the port. These vessels were attacked by coalition aircraft yesterday. Four of them were sunk and one vessel was beached."

In the outskirts of Ajdabiya -- which was recently taken over by opposition forces -- Gadhafi's regime planted several dozen land mines, Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday.

"Given the pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the area, the mines were clearly laid while government forces were in Ajdabiya," the group said.

As for NATO leadership, Adm. James Stavridis, the alliance's supreme allied commander, Europe, said the organization is "now taking on this mission in Libya" and says it is "adequately resourced" and appropriately balanced between the United States and the coalition.

"The mix of forces are sea and air forces, since we're not going to use ground troops there, and certainly that's good in the sense that it's different from the forces that we need in Afghanistan, a landlocked country," he said, speaking at a congressional hearing in Washington Wednesday.

In London, Hague detailed the Tuesday meeting of international diplomats coordinating their response to the Libyan crisis.

Envoys from more than 40 countries and organizations attended the conference and agreed to establish a "Libya Contact Group" to coordinate the international response to the crisis. The first contact group meeting will be held in Qatar.

The group also agreed to push for more international pressure and additional sanctions on Gadhafi's regime.

Hague said there are 16 nations contributing assets to coalition operations, including countries from the Middle East region. More than 340 planes from 14 nations have been involved, and vessels from 10 nations are supporting the arms embargo.

Britain has launched air missions, including the patrol of the no-fly zone, with aircraft destroying battle tanks and armored vehicles near Misrata over the weekend, Hague said. They also took part in a "successful" effort "against an ammunition storage facility store near Sebha early on Monday morning."

Addressing the specter of civilian casualties during warfare, Hague said he received a letter from the local council in Misrata thanking the allies for the targeted strikes and the no-fly zone, and he said the body confirmed "that there has been not a single case of civilian injury let alone death in and around Misrata."

CNN's Nic Robertson said the Libyan government has been saying there have been dozens of civilian casualties but hasn't been able to prove it.

But during a government-controlled tour of a hospital on Wednesday, he saw one woman with a broken leg, apparently injured by shrapnel after a missile strike.

"This is the first person we have seen who does appear to have injuries consistent with what the government has told us, as a result of coalition strikes," Robertson said.

In the woman's account, a coalition missile struck an ammunition dump close to where she lived. She described rushing out of the house to see what was happening. She was injured when she went back in and a missile hit the dwelling.

Cell phone video from her brother also "seems to be consistent" with the account, and journalists have reported that strike.

In diplomatic moves, Hague said a British diplomatic mission also visited the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Monday and Tuesday and met opposition leaders. He also said that five Libyan diplomats have been expelled from Britain because they could pose a threat to security.

As for providing weaponry to the rebels, British Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons on Wednesday that he has not ruled out arming the Libya opposition but added that Britain has not made the decision to do so. In interviews Tuesday with the three major U.S. television networks, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was open to arming the rebel fighters.

Bani, meanwhile, also rejected a U.S. military official's allegation that some al Qaeda elements or fighters were among the opposition forces.

"We don't have this kind of fundamentalism thinking or attitude, so it's not in our part to be organizing al Qaeda fighters in our ranks," Bani said. He said any Libyan fighters who may have had previously links to Al Qaeda have cut off those ties and are now fighting to liberate Libya.

Bani claimed three sources that soldiers from neighboring Chad's Republican Guard are fighting as mercenaries for the Gadhafi regime, describing 3,200 to 3,600 "mercenaries and militiamen" from the country.


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