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Libya: Rebels move to retake Brega

Reuters / Finbarr O'Reilly

Rebels fire rockets as they return fire towards forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi near Brega in eastern Libya, March 31, 2011.

AJDABIYAH, Libya, Apr 1
, 2011

Libyan rebels moved heavier weaponry towards the oil town of Brega on Friday and sought to marshal rag-tag units into a more disciplined force to regain momentum against Muammar Gaddafi's regular army.

While military action appeared to drift towards stalemate, coalition diplomatic efforts focused on breaking Gaddafi's hold on power in Tripoli.London urged Gaddafi loyalists to abandon him, following the defection of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa.

Rebels said neither side could claim control of Brega, one of a string of oil towns along the Mediterranean coast that have been taken and retaken several times by each side in recent weeks. The insurgents have failed to hold gains, even when helped by Western air strikes.

But there were signs on Friday of a more ordered approach. Rebels said more trained officers were at the front, heavier rockets were seen moving towards Ajdabiyah late on Thursday and the checkpoint was screening those going through.

"Only those who have large weapons are being allowed through. Civilians without weapons are prohibited," said Ahmed Zaitoun, one of the rebel fighters and part of a brigade of civilian volunteers who have received more training than most.

"Today we have officers coming with us. Before we went alone," he said, and he pointed to a man complaining at being stopped at the checkpoint, adding: "He is a young boy and he doesn't have a gun. What will he do up there?"

On the road between Ajdabiyah and the rebel "capital", Benghazi, gun emplacements were set up in freshly dug ditches with sand berms facing toward Ajdabiyah and the front line, the first sign of organised defensive positions protecting Benghazi.


The new approach has yet to be tested after the rout rebels sustained this week when a two-day rebel advance forward along about 200 km (125 miles) of coast west from Brega was repulsed and turned into a rapid retreat over the following two days.

In Tripoli, Gaddafi supporters danced and chanted patriotic songs late into the night as soldiers manning anti-aircraft guns watched the sky over the capital from the back of pickup trucks.

"We are not afraid, not afraid, not afraid. We will always protect our leader. I want to say to Muammar Gaddafi: I love you so much!" said Zuhra, a teenage girl at the rally.

Gaddafi, who describes the rebels as terrorists and accuses Western air forces of inflicting huge civilian casualties with their bombing, has ruled Libya since a military coup in 1969.

Long ostracised by the West and denounced in 1986 by then- President Ronald Reagan as "this mad dog of the Middle East" for his backing of guerrilla movements, he had cultivated better ties in recent years, opening Libya to Western oil investment.

But Gaddafi's crackdown on popular protests that spread from elsewhere in the Middle East raised alarm in the Arab world as well as the West, prompting a U.N. resolution permitting military action to protect civilians.

The United States, France and Britain, which have led air strikes, have talked about the possibility of arming the rebels. There have also been revelations U.S. President Barack Obama signed a secret order authorising covert U.S. support.

Asked if he had seen any covert Western operatives at the front line with rebels, Zaitoun said: "I wish. They have great technology. They would have useful guidance for us. I have heard many things but I haven't seen anything yet."

The defection of Koussa in London raised the spirits of insurgents wary of the superiority of their enemy both in arms and training. A Gaddafi appointee declined to take up his post as U.N. ambassador, condemning the "spilling of blood" in Libya.

Britain's Guardian newspaper said Libya had sent a senior aide to son Saif al-Islam to London for talks with British officials. A British Foreign Office spokeswoman neither confirmed nor denied the report.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she is aware people close to Gaddafi have been trying to make contact.

"We are beginning to see the Gaddafi regime crumble," rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said in the eastern town of Benghazi.

The top U.S. military officer said Gaddafi's forces were not close to collapse. "We have actually fairly seriously degraded his military capabilities," Admiral Mike Mullen said. "That does not mean he's about to break from a military standpoint."

News that Obama had authorised covert operations in Libya raised the prospect of wider support for the rebels.

But Obama's order is likely to alarm countries already concerned that air strikes on infrastructure and troops by the United States, Britain and France go beyond a U.N. resolution with the stated aim only of protecting civilians.

U.S. government sources told Reuters U.S. intelligence operatives were on the ground in Libya before Obama signed the order, to contact opponents of Gaddafi and assess their capabilities. There has been no CIA comment.


"I can't speak to any CIA activities but I will tell you that the president has been quite clear that in terms of the United States military there will be no boots on the ground," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

"I am preoccupied with avoiding mission creep and avoiding having an open-ended, very large-scale American commitment," he later told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We know about Afghanistan; we know about Iraq."

He said it should not be up to Washington to train or assist rebels or do nation-building if Gaddafi were be to ousted.

A Libyan government spokesman said Gaddafi and all his sons would stay on "until the end".

The top Vatican official in the Libyan capital cited witnesses on Thursday saying at least 40 civilians had been killed in air strikes on Tripoli.

NATO said it was investigating but had no confirmation of the report. Libya's state news agency, citing military sources, said Western air strikes had hit a civilian area in the capital overnight, but did not mention casualties.

About 1,000 people are believed to have been killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of Gaddafi since the uprising began on Feb. 17, the British government said.

NATO, which took over formal command of the air campaign on Thursday, said it would enforce a U.N. arms embargo on all sides. "We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the people," NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Stockholm.

Story by Alexander Dziadosz from Reuters. Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, William Maclean, Adrian Croft, Maria Golovnina, Edmund Blair, Ibon Villelabeitia, Lamine Chikhi, Hamid Ould Ahmed, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Avril Ormsby, Aly Eldaly, Niklas Pollard and Karolina Tagaris; Writing by Edmund Blair and Ralph Boulton; editing by Mark Heinrich

Reuters / Fri Apr 1, 2011 6:25am EDT



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