Libyan Rebels Push Towards Tripoli on Two Fronts

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Peter Graff

2011-07-06T212010Z_307909548_GM1E7770F1801_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

A Libyan boy flashing a victory sign attends a rally against Muammar Gaddafi in Misrata July 6, 2011.  

REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

AL-QAWALISH, Libya (Reuters) – Rebel fighters seized a village south of the Libyan capital and another group advanced toward Tripoli from the east on Wednesday in the biggest push in weeks toward Muammar Gaddafi’s main stronghold.

Rebels firing their rifles into the air in celebration poured into the village of Al-Qawalish, 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Tripoli, after a six-hour battle with pro-Gaddafi forces who had been holding the town.

Rushing through an abandoned checkpoint where government troops had left tents and half-eaten bread in their rush to get away, the rebels ripped down pro-Gaddafi flags.

Farther north, rebels pushed westward from the city of Misrata to within 13 km of the center of the town of Zlitan, where large numbers of pro-Gaddafi forces are based.

But they came under artillery fire. Doctors at the al-Hekma hospital in Misrata said 14 fighters had been killed on Wednesday and about 50 were injured.

The advances came amid reports that Gaddafi — under pressure from a five-month uprising against his rule, sanctions and a NATO bombing campaign — was seeking a deal under which he would step down.

His government has denied any such negotiations are underway, and NATO’s chief said he had no confirmation that Gaddafi was looking for a deal to relinquish power.

A Libyan official told Reuters on Wednesday there were signs a solution to the conflict could be found by the start of August, though he did not say what that solution might involve.

In the rebel-held cities of Benghazi and Misrata, thousands demonstrated against Gadaffi, waving European and rebel flags and calling for the end of his four-decade rule.

The rebel advances followed weeks of largely static fighting. Heavily armed Gaddafi forces still lie between the rebels and Tripoli, and previous rebel advances have either bogged down or quickly turned into retreats.

But with Al-Qawalish now in rebel hands, they can advance northeast to the larger town of Garyan, which controls the main highway leading into Tripoli. Libyan state television reported on Wednesday that NATO hit targets in Garyan as well fuel tanks in the town of Brega, 200 km (130 miles) west of Benghazi.

The previous big advance in the region was last month, when rebels pushed 20 km (12 miles) north from their base in the Western Mountains to the town of Bir al-Ghanam.

Misrata Push

At the frontline on the outskirts of Zlitan, a unit of fighters had built a sand-bank behind which they could shelter while firing at government troops. There were still sounds of intermittent shelling as night fell.

Unit commander Tarek Mardi, a 36-year-old former banker, said pro-Gaddafi forces had tried to push his fighters back but they had held their ground.

“Why isn’t NATO doing its job, where are the Apaches?” he asked, referring to the attack helicopters the alliance had deployed to Libya. “We are protecting our people, our country. We want to save our land from Gaddafi. He is a criminal.”

More than 100,000 rebel supporters spilled into the streets of Benghazi waving European and rebel flags and chanting slogans against the Libyan leader.

Gaddafi, who has ruled oil producer Libya for 41 years, says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has described the NATO campaign as an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya’s oil.

Deal Talk

A Russian newspaper this week quoted what it described as a high-level source as saying Gaddafi is sounding out the possibility of stepping down on condition there was a political role for one of his sons.

A Libyan government spokesman denied that report, saying Gaddafi’s future was not up for negotiation.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told Reuters in Tripoli that a solution to the conflict could be found before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins early in August.

“There are signals that the crisis will find a solution in the coming weeks. We will do whatever possible so that our people will spend Ramadan in peace,” he said.

“Currently the key hurdle to a solution is the NATO military campaign, and we hope that our friends in the African Union organization will do whatever possible to convince it to stop its aggression against our people.”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he had no confirmed information that Gaddafi had sounded out the possibility of stepping down.

“But it is quite clear that the end state must be that he leaves power,” Rasmussen told a news conference in Brussels.

(Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Misrata, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Lamine Chikhi in Tripoli, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Maria Golovnina in Benghazi, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Moscow bureau; Writing by Christian Lowe and David Dolan; Editing by Diana Abdallah)

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Sudan to Appoint Vice President from Darfur

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Sudan will appoint a vice president from the war-battered western Darfur region, state media said Tuesday, in a possible move toward meeting the demands of rebels there who complain of being marginalized.

Violence in Darfur, where mostly non-Arab rebels are fighting government troops backed by largely Arab militias, has fallen from its peak in 2003 and 2004 but a surge in attacks since December has forced tens of thousands to flee.

Qatar has been hosting Darfur peace talks but progress has been hampered by rebel divisions and continued military operations, as Khartoum has gradually reasserted control over towns and other previously rebel-held areas.

“The government has agreed on appointment of a Vice-President from Darfur to complete the current election session,” the state news agency SUNA said.

An official with one of the main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) led by Paris-based Abdel Wahed Mohamed al-Nur, said the appointment did not go far enough.

“The war is not about the vice president of Sudan,” Ibrahim al-Helwu, said. “The war is about equality for all Sudanese.”

Darfur is just one of several flashpoints as Sudan’s south prepares to secede on July 9 — a move analysts say could embolden rebels elsewhere.

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A woman washes clothes with water provided by aid agencies at the Krinding Camp for internally displaced persons in El Geneina, capital of West Darfur, June 29, 2011.

REUTERS/ Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

The United Nations says as many as 300,000 people have died during the conflict in Darfur. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.

(Reporting by Alex Dziadosz; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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Libyan Rebels Take New Ground in Western Mountains

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nick Carey

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Rebel fighters prepare to make their way to the frontline near the town of Riyayna, June 15, 2011.   

REUTERS/Anis Mili

GHARYAN, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels pushed deeper into government-held territory south of the capital on Wednesday, but their advance came as strains began to emerge in the Western alliance trying to topple Muammar Gaddafi.

Fighters in the Western Mountains, a rebel stronghold about 150 km (90 miles) south-west of Tripoli, built on gains made in the past few days by taking two villages from which pro-Gaddafi forces had for months been shelling rebel-held towns.

The rebels are still a considerable way from Gaddafi’s main stronghold in Tripoli, while their fellow fighters on the other two fronts — in Misrata and in eastern Libya — have made only halting progress against better-armed government troops.

“The revolutionaries (rebels) now control Zawiyat al-Babour and al-Awiniyah after pro-Gaddafi forces retreated this morning from the two villages,” Abdulrahman, a rebel spokesman in the nearby town of Zintan, told Reuters.

In Gharyan, a Gaddafi-held town that forms the gateway from Tripoli to the mountains, there was an undercurrent of tension as the frontline moves closer to the capital.
Libyan government minders brought a group of reporters to the town, which lies about 120 kilometers southwest of Tripoli and about 20 kilometers east of Kikla, which rebels seized from Gaddafi loyalists on Tuesday.

Despite an outward appearance of normality, numerous walls around town on Wednesday had recently painted over graffiti. The windows of one government building were smashed, the sign for another was riddled with holes.

While many traders and people on the streets were reluctant to talk to reporters, one shop owner said the calm in the area during the day was replaced by fighting every night.
“Two thirds of the people here are for the rebels,” he told Reuters, giving his name as Mohammed.

Those willing to talk in front of the minders were strongly pro-Gaddafi.

“Sarkozy is stupid, he is fighting this war for petrol,” a man called Yunis said in French, referring to the French president, villified by Gaddafi supporters as the driving force behind NATO bombing. “This is colonialism all over again.”

The NATO military alliance, which has been pounding Gaddafi’s military and command-and-control structures for nearly three months, has failed to dislodge him.

Libyan TV said on Wednesday a NATO bombardment had killed 12 people in a convoy in Kikla. A NATO official denied it.

Ties are becoming strained in the alliance, with some NATO members complaining that others have been reluctant to commit additional resources needed to sustain the bombing mission in the coming months.

Adding to the pressure, Republicans in the U.S. Congress are pressing President Barack Obama to explain the legal grounds on which he was keeping U.S. forces involved in Libya without the authorisation of Congress.

Speaking in London after meeting NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, British Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated that time was running out for Gaddafi and that the alliance was as determined as ever.

“I think there is a very clear pattern emerging which is time is on our side, because we have the support of NATO, the United Nations, the Arab League, a huge number of countries in our coalition and in our contact group,” he said.

Rasmussen echoed those comments despite senior NATO commander General Stephane Abrial on Tuesday raising questions about the alliance’s ability to handle a long-term intervention.

“Allies and partners are committed to provide the necessary resources and assets to continue this operation and see it through to a successful conclusion,” Rasmussen said.

Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said the alliance was “sliding down and being dragged more into the eventuality of a land-based operation in Libya.”

In a theatrical show of defiance, Gaddafi was shown at the weekend playing a game of chess with a Russian official, but after weeks of ambivalence, Moscow has joined Western countries this month in calling for Gaddafi to step down.

Saad Djebbar, a former legal adviser to the Libyan government, told Reuters Gaddafi would continue to play for time and seek to demoralise and split the coalition.

“Gaddafi’s mentality is that as long as my enemies haven’t triumphed, I haven’t lost,” he said.

“The U.S. stance, that the major outside role should be played by the Europeans and Arabs, sends the wrong signal. Gaddafi will be very encouraged by it. His line is ‘We are steadfast. We can wait it out.’”

Gaddafi has said he has no intention of leaving the country — an outcome which, with the military intervention so far failing to produce results, many Western policymakers see as the most realistic way out of the conflict.

The Libyan leader has described the rebels as criminals and al Qaeda militants, and called the NATO intervention an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya’s oil.

Potent Force

Though under attack from NATO warplanes and rebel fighters, Gaddafi’s troops have showed they are still a potent force.

A rebel spokesman in Nalut, at the other end of the Western Mountains range from Zintan, said Gaddafi’s forces had been shelling Nalut and the nearby border crossing into Tunisia. The rebels depend on that crossing to bring in supplies.

On Tuesday, the rebels tried to advance in the east of Libya, setting their sights on the oil town of Brega, but they were unable to break through.

In Misrata, Libya’s third-biggest city about 200 km (120 miles) east of Tripoli, rebels have been inching slowly west toward the neighbouring town of Zlitan along the coast road to Tripoli, but have repeatedly had to fall back under fire.

The rebels there have expressed frustration that NATO is not more active at taking out Gaddafi’s forces there, and is not doing more to coordinate with fighters on the ground.

A Reuters correspondent in Misrata said there were no further advances toward Zlitan on Wednesday.

Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger will visit the rebels in Benghazi on Sunday to offer “concrete support,” his office said, the latest in a series of such visitors.

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Obama Warns Gaddafi of “No Let Up”

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Falloon and Joseph Logan

LONDON/TRIPOLI (Reuters) – President Barack Obama warned Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Wednesday there would be ‘no let up’ in pressure on him to go, following a second successive night of heavy NATO bombing in Tripoli.

Six loud explosions rocked Tripoli late on Tuesday within 10 minutes, following powerful strikes 24 hours earlier, including one on Gaddafi’s compound that Libyan officials said killed 19 people.

Obama told a London news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron he could not predict when Gaddafi, who is fighting a three-month-old insurgency, might be forced to go.

“I absolutely agree that given the progress that has been made over the last several weeks that Gaddafi and his regime need to understand that there will not be a let-up in the pressure that we are applying.”

“We have built enough momentum that as long as we sustain the course that we are on that he is ultimately going to step down,” he said. “Ultimately this is going to be a slow, steady process in which we are able to wear down the regime.”

Fighting between Gaddafi’s forces and rebels has reached a stalemate, despite two months of NATO aerial support under a U.N. mandate intended to protect civilians. Gaddafi denies his troops target civilians and says rebels are criminals, religious extremists and members of al Qaeda.

Strikes drove back Gaddafi forces shortly after he pledged “no pity, no mercy” to rebels in their stronghold of Benghazi. Rebels have since proved unable to achieve any breakthrough against better-trained and equipped government troops.

Cameron echoed Obama’s calls for the departure of Gaddafi, who denies targeting civilians and portrays the disparate rebel groups as religious extremists, mercenaries and criminals serving Western schemes to seize Libya’s oil.

“I believe we should be turning up that pressure and on Britain’s part we will be looking at all the options of turning up that pressure,” he said.

Such pressure will not include NATO troops, Obama said.

“We cannot put boots in the ground in Libya,” he said. “There are going to be some inherent limitations to our air strikes in Libya.”

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday the NATO bombing should achieve its objectives within months.

France said this week it would deploy attack helicopters to ensure more precise attacks against Gaddafi forces embedded among the civilian population of Libyan cities. Britain said on Tuesday it was considering doing the same.

Heavy Bombing in Libya

In the second day of heavy NATO bombing of Tripoli, the alliance hit a vehicle storage bunker, a missile storage and maintenance site and a command- and-control site on the outskirts of Tripoli, a NATO official said. Government targets around the Western rebel outpost of Misrata had also been hit.

Libyan news agency Jana says NATO hit a telecommunications station in Zlitan overnight, causing “material and human casualties losses” west of Misrata.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed fears that Western states were being drawn into an Iraq-style conflict.

“It’s very different from Iraq because of course in the case of Iraq there were very large numbers of ground forces deployed from Western nations,” Hague told BBC Radio.

Diplomatic activity is intensifying. G8 world powers will discuss ways to break the impasse this week, with some expecting Russia to propose a mediation plan to the meeting.

South African President Jacob Zuma announced he would visit Tripoli next week for talks with Gaddafi in his capacity as a member of the African Union high-level panel for the resolution of the conflict in Libya.

Zuma headed an African Union mission to Tripoli in April but the bid to halt the civil war collapsed within hours. The AU does not have a good track record in brokering peace deals, having failed recently to end conflicts or disputes in Somalia, Madagascar and Ivory Coast.

Unlike France, Italy and Qatar, the United States has not established formal diplomatic ties with the rebels. Jordan said on Tuesday it recognized the rebel council as a legitimate representative of Libya’s people and planned to open an office in Benghazi.

The United States bolstered the credentials of the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council as a potential government-in-waiting on Tuesday when a U.S. envoy invited it to set up a representative office in Washington.

(Reporting by Joseph Logan in Tripoli, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Mohammed Abbas in Misrata, Sherine El Madany in Benghazi, Nick Vinocur in Paris; writing by Ralph Boulton; editing by Alison Williams)

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