Libyan rebel fighters run for cover as a bomb dropped by a Gaddafi loyalist jet explodes on Friday near Ras Lanuf. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Libya rebels appeal for air strikes against Gaddafi
Diplomacy not enough when people are dying, spokeswoman tells EU leaders as Gaddafi’s forces begin to regain control
Chris McGreal in Benghazi
guardian.co.uk, Friday 11 March 2011 17.18 GMT
Libya’s revolutionary leadership has appealed for France and Britain to launch air strikes against an intensive assault by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces that has forced the rebel army to retreat towards its eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
The Provisional Transitional National Council said that calls by European leaders for Gaddafi to quit and the threat of more sanctions were not enough as the regime regains its footing after the initial shock of the popular uprising.
The revolutionaries fear that the hesitation by most European states and the US to take direct action is providing a breathing space for Gaddafi to continue his attempts to crush the uprising in areas around Tripoli and to move toward Benghazi.
“If you don’t want to do something, you rely on the diplomatic side. It is not enough when people are dying,” said Iman Bugaighis, spokeswoman for the revolutionary council. “We need more than diplomacy. We need a no-fly zone but we need more than that. We need air strikes. I think they know where to bomb if they want to bomb. They know how to intervene. It’s urgent.”
Bugaighis said the Libyan revolutionaries were particularly looking to France for help after the government in Paris on Thursday became the first to recognise the transitional council as the “only legitimate representative of the Libyan people”.
“We are sure France will stand with us. It was the first country to recognise us so they believe in our right for a free, democratic Libya,” she said.
The revolutionary council is also hopeful that it can win support for military action from Britain, as the other European power with the capability to launch air strikes and potentially the political will to do so. The rebels have appealed for weapons supplies, saying they are being outgunned by Gaddafi’s forces.
However, Bugaighis said the revolutionary administration remains opposed to foreign troops intervening in Libya on the ground.
The council’s appeal came after Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, said the regime was hitting back against the three-week-old rebellion with a full-scale assault. “It’s time for action. We are moving now,” he told Reuters on Thursday.
On the same day, mobile phone subscribers in Benghazi received text messages appearing to originate from the Gaddafi regime saying the city would soon be recaptured.
The rebels’ military situation appeared to deteriorate further on Friday after the regime in Tripoli intensified its assault against the frontline town of Ras Lanuf. The rebels said Gaddafi’s forces entered the town with tanks and from the sea, and that there had been fighting in the streets. The regime’s military were firing rockets and shells at the coastal road in an attempt to stop rebels bringing supplies and reinforcements into the strategic oil town. But the insurgents continue to hold the oil and port facilities about 10 miles from Ras Lanuf.
Gaddafi’s forces also bombed the towns of Brega and Uqaylah behind rebel lines. Following the crushing of most resistance in Zawiya, near Tripoli, the only revolutionary holdout in western Libya, Misrata, about 125 miles east of Tripoli, was reported to be calm but bracing for an assault. Further evidence that Gaddafi is regaining control in Tripoli came amid reports that security forces used tear gas and fired in the air to disperse worshippers near a mosque planning anti-Gaddafi protests.
Foreign reporters were prevented by the regime from reaching the Tajoura district where there have been violent clashes after Friday prayers in recent weeks. “About 300 people were inside the mosque praying. Militia men fired tear gas and shot in the air to intimidate them,” a resident of the district told Reuters. “There was a lot of tear gas. Everyone ran away. They tried to prevent the protests and succeeded.”
Thousands of people rallied outside the revolutionary council’s headquarters in Benghazi on Friday to back the call for the no-fly zone. Some waved French flags.
One banner strung between lamp posts read: “Save Zawiya from bombing: no food, no medicine, no baby formula.”
Another dismissed Gaddafi’s attempts to portray the revolutionaries as Islamist terrorists: “We are freedom fighters. We are not al-Qaida. We do not support it.” T
he protesters chanted defiant calls for Gaddafi to go but the mood in the city has shifted as the initial expectation that Libya’s dictator would swiftly be driven from power by popular protest has given way to the realisation that the fight could be long and bloody.