Mar 07

Gaddafi forces attack rebels anew, even as regime appears to seek talks

Gaddafi forces attack rebels anew, even as regime appears to seek talks

By Steve Hendrix, Leila Fadel and Debbi Wilgoren Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, March 7, 2011; 3:17 PM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA – Libyan forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi attacked rebel-held areas again on Monday, bombing the oil terminal of Ras Lanuf and battling to maintain control of a Mediterranean coastal town farther west, the opposition reported.

But even as loyalist troops tried to reverse the rebels’ territorial gains, a former Libyan prime minister appeared on the state-controlled television station and called for negotiations to end the weeks-long uprising.

In Washington, President Obama warned Libyan officials close to Gaddafi that they would share the blame for “unacceptable” violence against civilians, and he noted that NATO is holding consultations in Brussels on a wide range of options, “including potential military options.”

Saying he was sending a message to those around Gaddafi, Obama said after a meeting with the visiting Australian prime minister: “It is their choice to make how they operate moving forward, and they will be held accountable for whatever violence continues to take place.” He also said he wants the Libyan people to know “that we will stand with them in the face of unwarranted violence and the continued suppression of democratic ideals that we’ve seen there.”

In Brussels, NATO ambassadors agreed Monday to expand the alliance’s air surveillance of Libya, as they launched an intensive week of discussions on whether and how to impose a “no-fly zone” that would ground Gaddafi’s warplanes and helicopters.

Contradicting earlier reports that Gaddafi’s forces had captured Ras Lanuf, a key oil terminal 412 miles east of the capital, Tripoli, a spokesman for the anti-Gaddafi revolutionary council in Benghazi insisted Monday that the rebels never lost control of the town. Although Libyan jets dropped bombs in the area throughout the day, there was no ground fighting near the town, and government troops never attempted to enter, according to the spokesman, Jalal el-Gallal.

At least one bomb fell within the grounds of an ethylene refinery where chemical storage tanks posed a massive explosive risk. Another struck a car containing a family, Gallal said. The report could not be confirmed.

There was some ground fighting about 25 miles farther west near Bin Jawwad, Gallal said, following an intense day-long battle Sunday that halted the rebels’ advances and left Gaddafi’s forces in control of the town 37 miles west of Ras Lanuf. The front line between the loyalists and rebels remained between the two towns, he said.

“Ras Lanuf is definitely in the hands of the rebels,” Gallal said. “But the other guys are well dug in.”

Families and hospital personnel who had stayed during days of fighting around the area evacuated Ras Lanuf early Monday on warnings that loyalist forces were preparing to attack.

Cars loaded with household goods rolled out of the gates of workers’ housing in the town. Some vehicles had mattresses and plastic tubs tied to their roofs, a hasty packing job following the pre-dawn alert. The families were asked to leave, according to Gallal, in light of reports that government fighters were using human shields in the fighting for Bin Jawwad.

“They wanted to get the women and children out of there,” he said.

In a midmorning airstrike, a bomb landed in front of the Ras Lanuf ethylene refinery, sending a towering plume of black smoke near dozens of massive chemical holding tanks. A strike on one of the many petroleum facilities, either deliberately or in the course of often frenzied fighting has been a key concern of the families living nearby.

“It would be like a nuclear weapon,” said Farej Zwawi, a fire-control technician who had remained in his company-supplied housing with his wife and children until Monday morning. “It would blast 40 square kilometers,” or about 15 square miles, he asserted.

The refinery was where about 100 rebel fighters had gathered with their cars, pickup trucks and an antiaircraft gun near the facility gates. The entrance to Ras Lanuf itself was nearly empty of fighters Monday, in stark contrast to the thousands who had gathered there the day before.

In Benghazi, Jadallah Azous al-Talhi, who was prime minister in the 1980s, appealed to elders in the rebel-controlled city Monday, asking them for a national dialogue to end the bloodshed. At the same time, opposition sources said the regime had made private overtures about launching negotiations with the revolutionaries’ governing committee, known as the Transitional National Council. But the sources denied that Gaddafi had made any specific offers.

“They’ve been asking for contact, but the council has refused,” Gallal said.

“The answer was there will be no negotiations as long as you are killing Libyans,” said Mohamed Fanoush, a member of the Benghazi city council who is allied with the opposition.

Flag-waving and chanting opposition supporters again gathered in Benghazi’s port-side square Monday night. But for some, the military setbacks of recent days appeared to have taken the edge off their hopes for a quick victory over Gaddafi. The jubilation following a string of rebel victories has been tempered by rage over reports that government fighters were using human shields in Bin Jawwad.

“Yesterday we were so optimistic,” said Najla el-Mangoush, a law professor who works with the governing council. “Now I’m worried about what’s happening. [Gaddafi] has used every dirty trick on us.”

Although information was scarce and hard to confirm, there were also reports of heavy fighting in in the strategically important city of Zawiyah, 27 miles west of the capital. Rebels forces claimed to still be in control of Libya’s third-largest city, Misurata, after a fierce and bloody battle Sunday that included tanks and artillery.

“Young people are out cleaning the streets, some are checking passersby, and we are preparing for any situation,” said Mohamad Sanusi, 44, whose neighbor was killed in Sunday’s fighting. “Some of the shops are open but most are closed. . . . Today there will be more funerals in the city of those who died as martyrs in the battle.”

At the NATO meeting in Brussels, U.S. Ambassador Ivo Daalder said the countries were pulling together information on what would be required to enforce a no-fly zone, which he cautioned might have limited effectiveness.

“We have actually seen a decrease in fighter and overall air activity [in Libya] over the weekend,” he said, adding that such flights peaked late last week.

“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at it,” he said. But he cautioned: “It’s not going to be the solution to every problem.”

NATO defense ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels on Thursday to discuss a possible no-fly zone and ways to block arms from reaching Libya.

Daalder said the countries agreed Monday to increase surveillance of Libya by AWACS early warning aircraft from 10 to 24 hours a day. The NATO jets are watching air and sea traffic into Libya as well as developments on on the ground, the ambassador said.

The United States also proposed at Monday’s meeting that member countries look at what NATO sealift and airlift assets could be used to ferry food and other humanitarian aid into Libya and evacuate civilians.

In Geneva, U.N. officials estimated that more than 213,000 foreign workers have left Libya, with many more expected to follow in coming months. They said a humanitarian crisis is building inside the country and on its borders with Tunisia, Egypt and Niger because of the crush of refugees.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appointed former Jordanian foreign minister Abdelilah al-Khatib as his special envoy to Libya and is urging authorities to ensure the safety of all foreigners and provide unhindered access for humanitarian aid.

Wilgoren reported from Washington. Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and William Branigin in Washington and correspondent Anthony Faiola in Tunis contributed to this report.

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