Sunday, March 27, 2011

Libyan rebels advance as Kadhafi forces flee strikes

BREGA, Libya (AFP) - Libyan rebels were pushing their advance westwards on Sunday after recapturing two key towns from Moamer Kadhafi's forces in their first major victories since the launch of coalition air strikes.
The rebels, on the verge of losing their eastern stronghold city of Benghazi before the air war began on March 19, on Saturday seized back Ajdabiya and Brega, 160 and 240 kilometres (100 and 150 miles) to the west.
And, spurred on by the aerial bombardment, they were on Sunday eyeing Al-Bisher, a town another 30 kilometres (20 miles) west along the road to Kadhafi's hometown of Sirte.
In Tripoli, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said overnight that the Western-led air strikes were killing soldiers and civilians between the strategic town of Ajdabiya and Sirte.
VIDEO: Rebels seize key Libyan town. Duration: 00:45
"Tonight the air strikes against our nation continue with full power," he said.
Scene: In Benghazi, fierce defence of no-fly zone
"We are losing many lives, military and civilians," Ibrahim added while repeating a call for a ceasefire and an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, which approved military action to stop the Libyan regime's attacks on civilians.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Sunday set out the broad outlines of a diplomatic plan to resolve the crisis in Libya that could include exile for Kadhafi.
"We cannot envisage a solution in which he would stay in power," Frattini told La Repubblica daily, adding that "clearly exile for Kadhafi would be different."
Forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi were retreating after rebels recaptured Ajdabiya
But US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, in an interview to air Sunday, accused Kadhafi's forces of planting bodies "of the people he's killed" at target sites to make it look as they were civilian victims.
US President Barack Obama, under pressure to explain his strategy to Americans, said the international mission had saved countless innocents from a "bloodbath" threatened by Kadhafi.
The Pentagon said the strikes had continued apace on Saturday with 160 missions flown, compared to 153 a day earlier.
In Libya's west, French fighter jets destroyed at least five warplanes and two helicopters of the pro-Kadhafi forces in the Zintan and Misrata regions on Saturday, said a statement on the French armed forces website.
A Libyan rebel flashes a V-sign in front of burning tank belonging to Kadhafi forces
British warplanes destroyed five Libyan armoured vehicles in air strikes on Ajdabiya and Misrata on Friday, the defence ministry in London said.
On Saturday, the rebels, backed by the Western barrage, poured into Ajdabiya, where destroyed tanks and military vehicles littered the road, AFP correspondents reported.
Scene: At site of Kadhafi's defeat, carnage and craters
The bodies of at least two pro-Kadhafi fighters were surrounded by onlookers taking photos, while a mosque and many houses bore the scars of heavy shelling as the rebels celebrated, firing into the air and shouting "God is greater."
Outside Ajdabiya, the bodies of 21 loyalist soldiers had been collected, a medic told AFP.
Regime loyalists had dug in at Ajdabiya after being forced back from the road to Benghazi by the first coalition air strikes.
Technicians work on a Rafale jet at the air force base in Ventiseri
"The tanks were firing on the houses non-stop," Ibrahim Saleh, 34, told AFP.
"I couldn't move from my house for days. There was no water or fuel or communications, and when people went out even to get fuel they were fired on."
Rebel spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmollah told reporters in Benghazi that Ajdabiya was "100 percent in the hands of our forces."
Kadhafi's forces were "on the back foot... because they no longer have air power and heavy weaponry available" after a week of bombing by coalition warplanes, he said.
A rebel fighter told AFP that insurgents had also retaken the oil town of Brega on Saturday.
"We are in the centre of Brega," Abdelsalam al-Maadani told AFP by telephone. "Kadhafi's forces are on the retreat and should now be at Al-Bisher (30 kilometres, 20 miles) west of Brega."
Rebels said the port city of Misrata was in dire need of help from coalition jets and aid groups
AFP correspondents in Brega confirmed this on Sunday.
Brega was deserted and there were signs Kadhafi's forces beat a hasty retreat, with heavy artillery and pick-up trucks abandoned in streets lined by pock-marked buildings.
Rebel spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said that Kadhafi's forces at Ajdabiya had refused several offers to surrender before rebel fighters attacked.
Ajdabiya, straddling the key road to Benghazi, was the first town recaptured by the rebels since a coalition of Western forces launched UN-backed air strikes.
But in Libya's west, where the capital Tripoli and most of Kadhafi's support is located, rebels reported Misrata was under government fire before coalition warplanes intervened.
Another spokesman said he believed a hospital ship organised by aid groups was also en route to Misrata, Libya's third city, under NATO escort from Malta.
At least three people were killed in Misrata on Saturday, a doctor contacted by AFP said, bringing to 117 the number killed there, with more than 1,300 wounded in a week of attacks by Kadhafi forces.
Rebels said that Kadhafi's forces at Ajdabiya had refused several offers to surrender before rebel fighters attacked
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Obama insisted national interests were behind his decision to order US forces into the UN-mandated combat.
Scene: Libya op in full swing on French aircraft carrier
"Make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians -- innocent men, women and children -- have been saved," he said in his weekly radio and online address.
When innocent people are brutalised by a leader like Kadhafi threatening a "bloodbath," and when nations were prepared to respond together, "it's in our national interest to act," Obama said.
The military mission was "clear and focused," he added, noting the Security Council had mandated the no-fly zone to prevent "further atrocities."
"We're succeeding in our mission. We've taken out Libya's air defences. Kadhafi's forces are no longer advancing across Libya."
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