Libya Rebels Retake Village South of Tripoli

July 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Peter Graff

2011-07-13T203734Z_1071071745_GM1E77E0CWJ01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Rebels walk to take positions next to a main road leading to Al-Quwalish in the western mountains of Libya during an offensive by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi July 13, 2011. Forces loyal to Gaddafi on Wednesday retook a village south of the capital seized by rebels a week ago, a set-back to rebel plans for a march on Tripoli. The loss of the village of Al-Qawalish, about 60 miles from the capital, underlined the faltering pattern of the rebel advances that has led some of the rebels’ Western backers to push for a political solution to the conflict instead.    

REUTERS/Ammar Awad

ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) – Rebel fighters said on Wednesday they had retaken a village south of the capital they lost to forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi earlier in the day, boosting rebel plans for a march on Tripoli.

The retaking of Al-Qawalish, about 100 km (60 miles) from Tripoli, came at the end of a day of bitter fighting that killed five rebels and wounded 15, according to rebel sources and hospital officials.

The back-and-forth fighting underlined the fragile nature of the rebels’ advances in the west that has led some of their Western backers to push for a political solution to the conflict.

Rebel spokesman Abdurahman Alzintani said pro-Gaddafi forces had been pushed back to where they were before they took the village earlier on Wednesday, or perhaps even further.

“It is the same, maybe one or two hills further,” he told Reuters.

A Libyan government soldier taken prisoner by the rebels said that pro-Gaddafi forces were massing nearby, potentially setting the stage for renewed fighting soon, according to a Reuters team in the western town of Zintan.

The counter-attack to retake Al-Qawalish was carried out by hundreds of rebels in pick-up trucks, who fanned out into the hills about 10 km (6 miles) north of the village, under fire from mortars launched by government troops.

Rebel forces want to use Al-Qawalish as a staging post to take the nearby town of Garyan, which controls access to the main highway heading north to Tripoli.

On the other main battle front, near the western city of Misrata, a burst of missile and mortar fire killed five rebels and wounded 17, hospital spokesman Khaled Abu Talghah said.

“This is just a normal day’s work for Gaddafi,” he said.

The conflict in Libya started out as a rebellion against Gaddafi’s 41-year-rule. It has now turned into the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings convulsing the region and has embroiled Western powers in a prolonged conflict they had hoped would swiftly force Gaddafi out of power.

The Libyan leader is refusing to quit and the rebels have been unable to make a decisive breakthrough toward the capital despite support from Western warplanes.

Libya charged the head of NATO with war crimes for killing innocent civilians and bombarding civilian targets in Libya.

Libyan General Prosecutor Mohammed Zekri al Mahjoubi described NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as a war criminal during a news conference in Tripoli on Wednesday.

DEAL ‘TAKING SHAPE’

France said on Tuesday a political way out of the conflict was being looked at and that Gaddafi’s emissaries had been in contact with NATO members to say he was ready to leave power.

“A political solution is more than ever indispensable and is beginning to take shape,” French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in Paris.

But it was not obvious how negotiations could persuade Gaddafi to quit, especially at a time when the Western alliance ranged against him is showing signs of wavering.

A report on Libya’s official JANA news agency described statements by Western officials about Gaddafi potentially stepping down or leaving the country as “elusive dreams.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is under pressure to find a quick solution. He gambled by taking a personal role in supporting the rebels, but is now anxious to avoid costly military operations running into the start of campaigning for the April 2012 presidential election.

Washington expressed doubts about peace overtures from Gaddafi emissaries. A State Department spokeswoman said the “messages are contradictory” and there is no clear evidence “Gaddafi is prepared to understand that its time for him to go.”

Revealing fresh strains inside NATO about the cost and duration of the Libyan operation, British Defense Minister Liam Fox said other alliance members were not pulling their weight and described some states’ contributions as “pathetic.”

“The United States is willing to spend on defense, Britain is willing to spend on defense and deploy. Far too (many) of our European partners inside NATO are still trying to get a free ride, and they should regard Libya as a wake-up call,” Fox said in London.

The rebel National Transitional Council, based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, received a diplomatic boost on Wednesday when Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands recognized the council as Libyans’ legitimate representative.

The Benelux countries joined more than 20 nations that have already granted the council recognition.

At a meeting in Brussels, the European Union executive offered Libyan rebels help with democratic reforms once the war was over and said their Benghazi-based council was gaining credibility.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Nick Carey in Misrata, Justyna Pawlak and Christopher Le Coq in Brussels, John Irish in Paris, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Mohammed Abbas in London; Writing by Christian Lowe and Giles Elgood; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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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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“Game Over” for Gaddafi?

June 30, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nick Carey and Adam Gray-Block

2011-06-29T203208Z_1646673128_GM1E76U0CR801_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

Stockpiles of ordnance inside a Gaddafi ammunition bunker which is now controlled by rebel fighters are seen approximately 40 kms (25 miles) southeast of Zintan June 29, 2011.

REUTERS/Anis Mili

(Reuters) – Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi could fall within two to three months, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor said on Tuesday, as rebels sought to build on a gradual advance toward Tripoli.
The ICQ’s Luis Moreno-O campo, who on Monday announced an arrest warrant for Gaddafi on charges of crimes against humanity, is the latest international official to say the Libyan leader would soon capitulate to a NATO-backed revolt.

“It is a matter of time … Gaddafi will face charges,” Moreno-O campo told reporters in The Hague, where the warrants were approved for Gaddafi, his son Said al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

He added: “I don’t think we will have to wait for long…In two or three months it is game over.”

The Libyan administration rejects the authority of the ICC and has denied targeting civilians, saying it has acted against armed criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants.
While there is little chance of Gaddafi being arrested if he remains in power, his foes have seized on the warrant to justify the three-month NATO bombing campaign and to try and bolster world opinion in support of the operation.

In Washington, a U.S. Senate panel backed a resolution to formally authorize continued U. s. participation in the NATO-led operation. Senators on the panel rebuked President Barrack Obama for not having sought congressional approval in the first place.

In comments that appeared to make any political settlement even less likely, rebels said after talks in Paris that even indirect contacts with Gaddafi were now excluded — hardening a line that until now acknowledged talks through intermediaries.

“I don’t think there is any place for direct or indirect contact with Gaddafi,” Mahout Sham, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council (NTSC) said after meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In its eastern stronghold of Benghazi, the NTSC hosted the foreign minister of Bulgaria, whose country along with Romania brought to at least 22 the number of states which recognize the NTSC as representatives of the Libyan people.

Rebels Closer to Tripoli

The rebellion against Gaddafi has made only slow progress since Western countries began bombing three months ago, but rebels say they are finally advancing closer to Tripoli.

Rebels based in the Western Mountains region southwest of the capital made their biggest breakthrough in weeks on Sunday to reach the town of Birr al-Ghanam, where they are now fighting pro- Gaddafi forces for control, their spokesman said.

The move took them 30 km (18 miles) north of their previous position and closer to Tripoli, Gaddafi’s main power base.

A rebel spokesman said there had been further fighting on Monday. “Fighting broke out yesterday evening in Birr Ay and Birr al-Ghanem. The (government) brigades used Grad rockets. The fighting stopped later after strikes by NATO,” he said.

A Reuters photographer said rebels tried to salvage weapons from a pro- Gaddafi arms depot some 20 km (13 miles) southeast of the nearby town of Zintan after it had been bombed by NATO, but they were prevented as fire broke out across the entire depot.

Elsewhere, rebels in Misrata said Gaddafi’s forces struck at the Mediterranean coastal city some 200 km (125 miles) east of Tripoli overnight. Rebels said they blew up a vehicle laden with arms belonging to Gaddafi’s forces in nearby Zlitan on Tuesday but were downbeat on the prospect of any imminent advances.

“Given our limited means, I don’t see how we are going to make major gains,” a rebel spokesman called Abdelsalam said.

The revolt has turned into the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic rulers across the Middle East, becoming a full-blown civil war with control of the country divided between the rebels and Gaddafi’s government.

In London, a British minister told reporters a team planning for a post-conflict Libya had recommended Gaddafi’s security forces be left largely intact after any rebel victory, avoiding an error made after the Iraq war.

“One of the first things that should happen once Tripoli falls is that someone should get on the phone to the former Tripoli chief of police and tell him he’s got a job and he needs to ensure the safety and security of the people of Tripoli,” said International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.

The report of the UK-led team is to be presented at the next meeting of an international contact group on Libya on July 15.

“NATO Fig Leaf”

Reporters were taken on Tuesday by Libyan government minders to the town of Bain Wailed, a tribal stronghold about 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Tripoli to attend a pro- Gaddafi rally.

“We are here to show that all Libyan people love Gaddafi,” said schoolteacher Halo Aimed, 20, one of 200 mostly female supporters, some of whom fired machine guns in the air, while two carried unloaded rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Bain Wailed is home to the Walhalla, Libya’s biggest tribe, which originally announced its opposition to Gaddafi when the uprising began in February. The tribe’s revolt was quickly suppressed by forces loyal to Gaddafi.

The launch of a third war in a Muslim country has divided U. s. public opinion while tens of thousands of troops are still deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. U. s. forces took the lead in the air campaign’s initial days, but quickly turned command over to NATO, with most bombing carried out by Britain and France.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed a resolution formally authorizing U. s. participation in the operation but banning the introduction of U.S. troops on the ground.

Senators said Obama should have sought approval in Congress earlier. U. s. State Department legal adviser Harold Kohl said no authorization was needed because the U. s. role was too limited to be considered “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution, which requires presidents to seek approval for military action.

Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat and former U. s. Navy secretary, said any operation that lasts for months and costs billions could be defined as hostilities “even under the NATO fig leaf.”

(Additional reporting by Maria Gorgonian in Benghazi, Michael Martian in Beijing, Susan Cornell in Washington, John Irish in Paris, Joseph Nash in Berlin, David Brainstorm in Brussels and Hasid Auld Aimed in Algiers; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Peter Graff)

13-27

Libya’s Misrata Hit; China Shifts Toward Rebels

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Robinson

LIBYA/
Rebel fighters sit at the frontline in Ajdabiyah June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – Libya’s rebels gained on the diplomatic front Wednesday by securing China’s recognition as a “dialogue partner,” but suffered on the battlefield where Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were able to shell their stronghold of Misrata.

Four months into the uprising, and three months since NATO war planes joined their fight to topple Gaddafi, the rebels are making only slow gains in their march on the capital Tripoli. But they have made steady progress winning support abroad and isolating Gaddafi on the international stage.

“China sees you as an important dialogue partner,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Mahmoud Jibril, diplomatic chief of the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council, who visited Beijing. The comments were published in a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website (www.mfa.gov.cn).

“(The Council’s) representation has been growing stronger daily since its establishment, and it has step-by-step become an important domestic political force,” Yang said, adding China was worried about the Libyan people’s suffering.

The comments came hours after Gaddafi’s forces landed rockets in the center of Misrata for the first time in several weeks. No one was reported hurt by that strike, but it undermined a relative sense of security among residents who believed that a siege on the city had been broken last month.

NATO and the rebels hope that Gaddafi’s diplomatic and economic isolation will eventually bring his government down.

Exports of oil have ceased, depriving Gaddafi’s government of the funds it used during peacetime to provide the population with heavily subsidized food and fuel. Petrol queues in Gaddafi -held areas now stretch for miles.

In a sign of the increasing impact of the crisis on daily life, Gaddafi’s state media issued instructions ordinary people should follow “to deal with the fuel shortage.”

They called on people to use public transport instead of cars, avoid using air conditioning when driving and stick to 90-100 kph as the ideal speed. They also asked Libyans to be patient when queuing at petrol stations.

At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli Wednesday but it was not clear where or what caused them.

Rebels Seek Recognition

Winning international recognition could eventually help the rebels secure access to frozen Libyan funds, and the right to spend money earned by exporting the country’s oil.

China is the only veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that has yet to call for Gaddafi to step down, after Russia joined Western countries last month in calling for him to leave power.

Beijing, never very close to Gaddafi, hosted Libya’s Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi this month. Courting the rebels has marked a policy adjustment for China, which generally avoids entangling itself in other nations’ domestic affairs.

At least eight European and Arab governments have said they recognize the rebel council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Other countries have allowed the rebels to set up representative offices.

The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) — a Saudi-based grouping of 57 Muslim countries — said a delegation arrived Wednesday to mediate. It would meet the rebels in Benghazi and Gaddafi officials in Tripoli, a statement said.

Misrata Attack

Rebels drove loyalist forces out of the third-biggest city Misrata in mid-May and are using it as a base for an advance westwards on Tripoli. Gaddafi forces’ ability to hit it with shells early Wednesday is a setback in a city that had experienced relative calm after months of siege and fighting.

More rockets fell later in the day in the sparsely-populated El-Araidat neighborhood near the port. Residents said no one was hurt and a Reuters reporter saw only several dead sheep lying in a field after the attack.

“Everyone is worried. We don’t know where to go anymore. Only when I die will I be safe,” said Mohammed Mabrouk, who lives near one of two houses hit by the first rocket rounds. Two more landed in open areas.

Fighting has been largely on Misrata’s far western and eastern edges, where the rebel army is sustaining heavier casualties by the day from the better-equipped and better-trained government forces.
Rebels have been trying to advance west toward the town of Zlitan, where Gaddafi’s soldiers are imposing a tight siege. Libyan television said Wednesday that “dozens” of people were killed in Zlitan after NATO naval ships shelled the town.

The report could not be independently verified because foreign reporters have been prevented from entering Zlitan. NATO normally comments on its Libya operations the following day.
If the Libyan television report is confirmed, it could further complicate the mission of the NATO-led military alliance, whose credibility has been questioned after it admitted Sunday killing civilians in a Tripoli air strike.

Gaddafi’s government says more than 700 civilians have died in NATO strikes. However, it has not shown evidence of such large numbers of civilian casualties, and NATO denies them.

A rebel spokesman called Mohammed told Reuters from Zlitan that NATO had been hitting government military targets in the town on an almost daily basis. He said Gaddafi’s soldiers used artillery positions in Zlitan to fire salvoes toward Misrata.

“We hear the sound of artillery fire every night,” he said.

Four rebel fighters were killed and 60 others were wounded in fighting with government forces Tuesday in Dafniya, which lies between Zlitan and Misrata. Eleven rebel fighters were killed there a day earlier.

Rebels are trying to inch toward Tripoli from Misrata, east of the capital, and from the Western Mountains region to its southwest. The going has been tough.

“Gaddafi’s forces have moved forward about a kilometer,” Dr Mohammed Grigda said at the field hospital in Dafniya just outside Misrata. It was impossible to verify the information but a Reuters reporter in Dafniya saw that rebel mortar positions had pulled back slightly.

In the Western Mountains, where the rebels made significant gains in recent weeks, NATO launched four air strikes Tuesday against government forces outside the town of Nalut near the border with Tunisia, a rebel spokesman there said. Gaddafi’s soldiers fired 20 rockets into the town, but no one was hurt.

Gaddafi allies denounce the bombing campaign as a foreign attempt to force a change of government and seize the North African state’s oil. NATO states defend the operation as a U.N.-mandated mission to protect Libyan civilians.

(Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Tripoli, Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and Ali Abdelatti in Cairo; Writing by Andrew Hammond and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Libyan Rebels Take New Ground in Western Mountains

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nick Carey

2011-06-15T224232Z_1848250202_GM1E76G0IRF01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA

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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