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Libya: Gaddafi envoy in Europe, exchanging fire in Brega

Reuters / Andrew Winning

Rebel fighters ride an open pick-up truck mounted with a recoilless rifle as they retreat from the frontline on the road to the east of Brega, in Libya, April 3, 2011.

, 2011

A Libyan envoy was in Europe on Monday seeking to end the oil-producing country's bloody civil war that has become locked in a stalemate on the battlefield between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi, carrying a message that Gaddafi wants an end to the conflict between rag-tag rebels, who are backed by Western air strikes, and the army, is expected in Turkey on Monday, then Malta on Tuesday.

"It seems that the Libyan authorities are seeking a solution," Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said after talks with Obeidi in Athens on Sunday, on the latest diplomatic mission from Tripoli to seek a settlement.

There was no sign of what Libya might offer, beyond a willingness to talk, to end the war that is bogged down on a frontline around the eastern oil town of Brega, while leaving civilians bombarded by Gaddafi forces in western rebel holdouts.

Underlining the plight of civilians in west Libya, a Turkish ship that sailed into the besieged city of Misrata to rescue some 250 wounded under protection of Turkish warplanes had to leave in a hurry after thousands pressed forward on the dock.

Swathed in bandages, evacuees on board gave some of the most detailed accounts of conditions in Misrata. "There are snipers everywhere," said Ibrahim al-Aradi, 26, wounded in his groin.

"When Gaddafi's men hear the NATO planes they hide in houses and mosques. When the planes are gone they destroy them," said Mustafa Suleiman, a 30-year-old computer engineer.

Turkey's foreign minister ordered the ship into Misrata after it spent four days waiting in vain for permission to dock.


The humanitarian mission took place under cover from 10 Turkish air force F-16 fighter planes and two navy frigates. The Ankara, a car ferry chartered by the Turkish government and turned into a hospital ship, is expected to reach Cesme in Turkey on Tuesday night.

Stalemate on the frontline, high-level defections from Gaddafi's inner circle and the plight of civilians caught in fighting or facing food and fuel shortages have prompted a flurry of diplomatic contacts to find a way out.

One diplomat cautioned, however, that any diplomatic compromise -- for example one in which Gaddafi handed over power to one of his sons -- could lead to the partition of Libya.

"Various scenarios are being discussed," said the diplomat. "Everyone wants a quick solution."

If there were eventually to be a ceasefire leading to the partition of Libya, control of revenues from the oil ports, including Brega and Ras Lanuf to the west, would be crucial.

Gaddafi believes the uprising is fuelled by Islamist radicals and Western nations who want to control Libya's oil. The rebels, whose stronghold is in the eastern city of Benghazi, want nothing less than the removal of Gaddafi and his circle.

The U.N.-mandated military intervention, in which warplanes have attacked Gaddafi's armour, radars and air defences, began on March 19 and was intended to protect civilians caught up in fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and the rebels.

Neither the Gaddafi troops nor the disorganised rebel force have been able to gain the upper hand on the frontline, despite Western air power in effect aiding the insurgents.


After chasing each other up and down the coast road linking the oil ports of eastern Libya with Gaddafi's tribal heartland further west, the two sides are stuck in Brega, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 25 km (15 miles).

Yet Western countries, wary of becoming too entangled in another war after campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, have ruled out sending ground troops to help the rebels in what has become a civil war in the North African desert state.

The United States, which has handed over command of the air operation to NATO, said it had agreed to extend the use of its strike aircraft into Monday because of poor weather last week.

But it has stressed its desire to end its own involvement in combat missions, and shift instead to a support role in areas such as surveillance, electronic warfare and refuelling.

Stephen Dalton, the head of Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF), was quoted as telling Monday's Guardian newspaper that the RAF was planning to conduct operations in Libya for at least six months. He said Britain would need planes "for a number of months rather than a number of days or weeks".

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had been talking by telephone with officials in Tripoli as well as the leaders of Qatar, Turkey and Britain over the past two days. Greece has enjoyed good relations with Gaddafi for a number of years.

The rebels, meanwhile, are working to impose discipline among the ranks of their many inexperienced volunteers in order to not only hold their positions but push forward. Many of them need more up to date weapons and training.


The rebels named a "crisis team" with Gaddafi's former interior minister as their armed forces chief of staff, and attempted to stiffen their enthusiastic but untrained volunteer army by putting professional soldiers at its head.

"We are reorganising our ranks. We have formed our first brigade. It is entirely formed from ex-military defectors and people who've come back from retirement," former air force major Jalid al-Libie told Reuters in Benghazi.

Without a backbone of regular forces, the lightly armed volunteer caravan has spent days dashing back and forth along the coast road on Brega's outskirts, scrambling away in pick-ups when Gaddafi's forces attack with rockets.

In the west, Gaddafi's forces pressed their siege of Misrata despite Western air strikes to protect civilians, shelling a building that had been used to treat wounded, a resident said, killing one person and wounding more.

Misrata, Libya's third city, rose up with other towns against Gaddafi's rule in mid-February, but it is now surrounded by government troops after a violent crackdown put an end to most protests elsewhere in the west of the country.

"Even the big supermarket was destroyed. Some of my friends were killed. We have no vegetables, no fruit, only bread. Gaddafi wants to kill Misrata by fighting and starvation," Suleiman said.

Hamen, a Libyan doctor who was accompanying the men, said: "Misrata is terrible. I have seen terrible things. Thirty people killed in one day. These are my patients. I must stay with them but I want to go back."

After weeks of shelling and encirclement, Gaddafi's forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels' hold on Misrata. Rebels say they still control the city centre and the port, but government troops are pressing in.

Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified because Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from the city, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli.

Gaddafi's troops are also mopping up resistance southwest of Tripoli. Government forces shelled the small town of Yafran, killing two people, Arabiya television reported, quoting a witness. They also shelled the city of Zintan, a resident said.

Story by Maria Golovnina from Reuters. Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou in Athens, Alexander Dziadosz in Brega, Angus MacSwan in Benghazi, Christian Lowe in Algiers, Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Karolina Tagaris in London; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood.

Reuters / Mon Apr 4, 2011 9:45am GMT


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