Monday, March 28, 2011

New Airstrikes Aid Libyan Rebels' Push West

Libyan rebels are continuing their westward push to take back towns from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces, capitalizing on international airstrikes against the pro-government troops.

Rebels set their sights Sunday on Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, and there were rumors Monday that the town had fallen into rebel hands. The report could not be confirmed, however, and witnesses said the streets were calm and that there were no signs of fighting.

Allied airstrikes targeted Sirte for the first time Sunday, after rebels recaptured vast amounts of territory, including the key oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf.

A heavy bombardment also rocked the capital, Tripoli, late Sunday, with numerous loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire heard. Libyan state television later confirmed air raids on both Sirte and Tripoli.

By Sunday evening, anti-Gadhafi fighters had also taken control of the eastern town of Bin Jawad. The town is the farthest point west that opposition fighters had reached before a government counter-offensive pushed them back early this month.

The rebels are trying to end Gadhafi's 42-year rule.

NATO announced Sunday it will take full command of all international military operations in Libya, including airstrikes. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance's 28 members will begin executing the operation "with immediate effect."

A U.S., French and British-led coalition has been hitting Libyan government forces from the air since March 19 to enforce a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing all necessary measures to protect Libyan civilians from government attacks.

NATO officials said the transfer of command from the Western-led coalition would take up to two days.

The decision follows days of heated negotiations within the alliance. NATO previously had agreed to enforce only a no-fly zone over Libya, rather than to stage airstrikes in defense of Libyan civilians.

In the western city of Misrata, residents said fighting continued between heavily armed pro-Gadhafi forces and opposition fighters on Sunday. Libyan government troops have surrounded Misrata for days.

After recapturing the two key oil towns, the rebels promised to restart Libya's stalled oil exports. A Libyan rebel official in charge of economic affairs says the movement reached a deal with Qatar for the Gulf nation to market Libyan crude from oil fields in opposition territory.

Libya normally exports about 1.5 million barrels of crude per day, but those shipments came to a halt after foreign oil workers fled the uprising that began last month.

Restarting the shipments would provide the rebel government based in the eastern city of Benghazi with a steady source of income. There was no immediate confirmation of the deal from Qatar.
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