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Libya: Gaddafi forces on Benghazi

Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

A rebel fighter (L) holds a RPG launcher as he shouts "Allahu Akbar!" (God is the greatest!) in Benghazi March 19, 2011

BENGHAZI, Mar 19, 2011

Reports from Libya say pro-government forces have entered the western outskirts of the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, with the city also coming under attack from the coast and the south.

Witnesses in Bengazi, in the east of the country, said they heard large explosions on Saturday. Al Jazeera's correspondents reporting from the city told of multiple explosions, plumes of smoke in the sky and a fighter jet getting shot down.

Al Jazeera's James Bays said there were reports that the plane belonged to the opposition rebels.

Government troops reportedly bombed the southern Benghazi suburb of Goreshi among other places. Artillery and mortars were also fired in the centre of the city.

"There's a lot of jittery people here at the moment, there is a lot of activity and a lot of firing going on," Al Jazeera's Tony Birtley reported from Benghazi.

Al Jazeera's Bays said "[the opposition has] the resolve, they are determined to fight back, but they don't have the hardware that Gaddafi's forces have." He said "it will likely be a protracted battle" if Gaddafi tried to take the opposition stronghold.

The government denied it had attacked the city. "There are no attacks whatesover on Benghazi. As we said, we are observing the ceasefire," Mussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, told the Reuters news agency.

Khaled Kaim, Libya's deputy foreign minister, told the BBC "the ceasefire is real, credible and solid. We are willing to receive [international] observers as soon as possible". He said the government had grounded its air force.

Ibrahim Jibreel, a Libyan political activist told Al Jazeera "we need to first consider the source" when receiving information about Libya. He said the government has "demonstrated their ability and willingness to lie time and time again".

Fresh fighting was also reported in the rebel-held towns of Misurata, near the capital Tripoli, and Ajdabiya, which lies close to Benghazi. There were also reports of Gaddafi forces attacking the town of Az Zintan.

International appeal

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council told Al Jazeera "there is a bombardment by artillery and rockets on all districts of Benghazi".

"We appeal to the international community, to the all the free world, to stop this tyranny from exterminating civilians," he said, urging swift action in Libya.

Meanwhile Ibrahim, the government spokesperson, spoke at a news conference in Tripoli. He said Gaddafi had sent urgent messages to the French and British leaders, telling them they "will regret" interfering in the country's affairs.

In a letter to US president Barack Obama, Gaddafi again blamed Libya's violence on Al Qaeda, asking "what would you do if you found them controlling American cities with the power of weapons? What would you do, so I can follow your example."

Al Jazeera's Bays said there was no Al Qaeda presence in Benghazi and other opposition towns. "[Ordinary] men women and children in the towns and cities of eastern Libya are the ones fighting," he said.

On Friday, Obama delivered an ultimatum Gaddafi, threatening military action if the Libyan leader ignored non-negotiable UN demands for a ceasefire.

The warning came shortly after the UN Security Council authorised a no-fly zone over the north African country.

Within hours of Obama's ultimatum, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, asked by CNN whether Gaddafi was in violation of these terms, said: "Yes, he is."

Libya's government announced on Friday an immediate ceasefire against pro-democracy protesters. But the US accused the Libyan government of violating the truce.

Military action 'imminent'

Following the no-fly-zone vote at the UN, Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, said Western military intervention in Libya was imminent.

France is due to host a "decisive" summit on Saturday with the European Union, Arab League and African Union, as well as UN chief Ban Ki-moon, on taking UN-sanctioned military action in Libya.

He said he expected military intervention within hours of the summit.

Obama, in his remarks, made clear any military action would aim to change conditions across Libya - rather than just in the rebel-held east - by calling on Gaddafi''s forces to pull back from the western cities of Az Zawiyah and Misurata as well as from the east.

"All attacks against civilians must stop," he said a day after the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorising international military intervention.

"Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misurata and Az Zawiyah, and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas.

"Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya.

"Let me be clear, these terms are not negotiable ... If Gaddafi does not comply ... the resolution will be enforced through military action."

Night of rumours

The reports of government forces trying to storm Benghazi on Saturday followed a night of rumours that Gaddafi's troops were within striking distance of the city.

Hundreds of men, some riding in pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns, had flooded out of the city in response to a call from Benghazi's rebel-run radio to swiftly man their posts.

Several loud explosions, some of them followed by anti-aircraft fire, were heard inside Benghazi and new checkpoints sprang up as word spread that Gaddafi's forces could be on their way.

Kaim, Gaddafi's deputy foreign minister, had denied there were any plans to attack the rebel bastion.

At a news conference, Kaim acknowledged that checkpoints had been set up outside rebel-held cities, but stressed that "any sovereign country is free to take [security] measures".

In Misurata, residents said they had faced heavy bombardment on Friday.

Misurata, like Az Zawiyah, had been left stranded in the west while rebels who had advanced towards them from the east were beaten back by a counter-offensive by Gaddafi forces.

A doctor, who declined to give his name, said by telephone late on Friday evening, "now they are on the outskirts of the city [Misurata]. I can still hear bombing from time to time".

In Tripoli the government said there had been no bombing since it announced the ceasefire.

"We have had no bombardment of any kind since the ceasefire was declared," Kaim said, when asked about reports of continued government operations in Misurata and other parts of the country.


Story by Maria Golovnina and Patrick Worsnip from Aljazeera

Aljazeera/ 9 Mar 2011 09:12



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