Libya no-fly zone calls mount as new battles loom

Libya’s air force stepped up air strikes and heavy shelling was heard on Tuesday on the front line, as the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime entered its third week amid mounting calls for a no-fly zone over the country.

As the violence escalated, the Arab League said foreign ministers of its member states would meet on Saturday for crisis talks on the situation, a day later than originally announced.

The European Union tightened sanctions against Tripoli, targeting five “entities”, including the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) — the overseas investment vehicle for oil revenues — and the Libyan Central Bank.

Meanwhile, a rebel spokesperson said an intermediary of Gaddafi had offered talks with the opposition but was rejected outright.

The claim of an approach by Gaddafi envoys was dismissed as “rubbish” by a government official in Tripoli speaking on condition of anonymity.

The head of the insurgents’ provisional council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, also said the rebel leadership would not pursue criminal charges against Gaddafi if he resigns and leaves the country.

Unconfirmed reports that Gaddafi was seeking a safe exit brought oil prices off 30-month highs, as Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) held discussions over Libya, traders said.

New York’s light sweet crude for delivery in April dipped 20 cents to $105,44 a barrel, one day after soaring to $106,95 — the highest level for two and a half years.

In London, Brent North Sea crude for April dropped 14 cents to $114,90.

Analysts said the dip would likely be short-lived as cyber-activists in Opec kingpin Saudi Arabia have called for protests on Friday demanding change in the kingdom — stoking concerns Riyadh faces a political test too.

Members of Opec are having talks on the market in light of the Libyan turmoil, but have not decided whether to lift output, Kuwaiti Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmad Abdullah al-Sabah said.

On the ground, the sound of heavy shelling could be heard west of the rebel-held oil town of Ras Lanuf, and dozens of rebel fighters could be seen moving up the desert road in pick-up trucks, vans and even on foot.

Earlier, warplanes staged a series of raids on the town, wounding one person. One strike hit a block of flats without any injuries reported.

‘Making preparations’
An Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter saw three rebel fighters brought to a hospital, badly wounded in the fighting between Ras Lanuf and the next hamlet west, Bin Jawad, which the rebels failed to take in heavy clashes on Sunday.

The rebels said government troops had unleashed a torrent of fire.

Saad Hamid, who described himself as a media official for the rebel council, said government forces had been seen digging trenches and had brought up rocket launchers, tanks and artillery, as well as intensifying air strikes.

“We now have reinforcements on the way and they are also making preparations,” he told AFP.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) stepped up the pressure on Tuesday for the United Nations (UN) to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.

In a statement released at the end of a special session in Saudi Arabia on Libya, the 57-member bloc said it would hold ministerial-level talks “as soon as possible to adopt the recommendation of a no-fly zone”.

IOC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu called for the no-fly zone at the beginning of the meeting but rejected “any military interference [on the ground] in Libya”.

‘Take all necessary measures’
On Monday, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council urged the “UN Security Council [to] take all necessary measures to protect civilians, including enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya”.

Diplomats said a joint British-French resolution for a no-fly zone to hamper Gaddafi’s offensive and deny his air force the freedom to attack the rag-tag rebel elements could go before the Security Council as early as this week.

But any move toward collective military action of any kind is likely to face tough resistance from China, Russia and other members of the Security Council.

The United States, which would likely bear the main burden of any such operation, has said it is studying the possibility while warning of the major commitment it would entail.

Facing rising pressure at home and abroad to do more to protect civilians and hasten Gaddafi’s exit from power, Washington also appeared to be wary of throwing weapons into a conflict involving groups about which it knows little.

While the White House said it was considering arming the rebels, it insisted such a move would be premature, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that intervention would likely require international approval.

‘Conspiracy to divide Libya’
“It would be premature to send a bunch of weapons to a post office box in eastern Libya; we need to not get ahead of ourselves,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney said.

Libyan Foreign Minister Mussa Kussa accused the West on Monday of trying to split the country by secretly building up contacts with rebel leaders.

“It is clear that France, Great Britain and the US are now getting in touch with defectors in eastern Libya. It means there is a conspiracy to divide Libya,” he told a press conference in Tripoli.

OIC chief Ihsanoglu also called on the Libyan authorities to “immediately allow the entrance of humanitarian aid”, backing UN demands for urgent access to the victims of fighting as government forces try to regain control of western cities such as Misrata and Zawiyah.

Two members of the provisional national council are to speak to the European Parliament, head of the assembly’s liberal group Guy Verhofstadt said on Tuesday, adding that he had invited European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to meet them.

Meanwhile, Khartoum University said it had decided to revoke the honorary doctorate that it awarded to Gaddafi in 1996 and condemned the actions of his regime against the Libyan people. — AFP

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Danny Kemp
Danny Kemp
The Hague bureau chief, @AFP. Ex-Brussels, London, Paris, Bangkok, Islamabad and Hong Kong

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