Libyan rebels fight back, West divided

Rebels battling Muammar Gaddafi urgently appealed on Friday for arms and medical aid, while the European Union (EU) insisted the Libyan strongman step down “without delay” and said it was examining “all necessary options” to protect the people.

Gaddafi is “a leader shooting at his own people”, EU president Herman Van Rompuy said at the close of an emergency summit of the 27-nation bloc to examine the crisis and seek consensus on how to deal with it.

“The Libyan leadership must give up power without delay,” Van Rompuy said.

At their summit in Brussels, EU leaders said Gaddafi must give up power “without delay” and agreed to “examine all necessary options” to protect civilians.

Opening a door to possible military intervention, they agreed a statement expressing “deep concern about attacks against civilians, including from the air”.

“In order to protect the civilian population, member states will examine all necessary options, provided that there is a demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region,” the statement said.

The legal basis sought by EU states would be a United Nations Security Council resolution authorising action.

On the ground, rebels said fighting flared again in the key eastern oil hub and frontline town of Ras Lanuf, after most of them were overwhelmed and driven out in a fierce battle on Thursday after holding it for a week.

In the midst of a heavy-weapons duel, a warplane dropped bombs on a rebel checkpoint 10km east of the town and on a nearby oil refinery, but no casualties were reported.

An Agence France-Presse (AFP) reporter saw flames and a massive plume of thick black smoke rising from the refinery, the second facility to be hit in the week’s fighting.

Later, a second strike hit rebel positions about 15km east of town.

There was no reliable estimate for the number of dead in Friday’s fighting, but an AFP reporter saw at least five bodies, and medics said 10 people were killed on Thursday.

Medics say 400 people have died and 2 000 more been wounded in eastern Libya since February 17.

Earlier, rebels fired a salvo of at least 12 Katyushas from a rocket launcher mounted on the back of a truck, and what rebels said were loyalist army shells and Grad rockets were heard exploding further west.

‘We’re coming’
On Thursday, state television said loyalists had “purged” Ras Lanuf, and Gaddafi’s, son Seif al-Islam, said victory was in sight.

“We’re coming,” Seif told young supporters in Tripoli, referring to the loyalist advance towards the eastern rebel bastion of Benghazi, Libya’s second city.

But in Benghazi, up to 10 000 people poured onto the streets on Friday in a carnival-like atmosphere, demanding that Gaddafi quit and praying for victory in a bloody uprising inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

“Many people have died in our struggle in Ras Lanuf and in Benghazi, but the youth has chosen to fight on rather than see this rule continue, and they will fight for the sake of God,” a blind imam proclaimed ahead of prayers.

“Victory is near!”

As the fighting continued, volunteer medics calling for international help and the United Nations warning of a potential food shortage.

‘We asked for a no-fly zone’
A few kilometres east of Ras Lanuf, within earshot of shellfire and air raids, Doctor Awad el-Ghweiry feared his makeshift clinic would not be able to cope.

“Where are all the international organisations?” he demanded, as he and his colleagues treated three rebels and three loyalists.

In Rome, the head of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, Daniele Donati, said food security in Libya could be seriously affected by the situation, which “may lead to a sudden disruption of imports and the collapse of the internal distribution system”.

With its fighters in retreat, the opposition appealed for foreign intervention.

“The Libyans are being cleansed by Gaddafi’s air force,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel national council, told the BBC. “We asked for a no-fly zone to be imposed from day one.”

“We also want a sea embargo and we urgently need some arms and we also need humanitarian assistance and medicines to be sent to the cities besieged by Gaddafi troops.”

Western powers have been divided over how best to address the military crisis, as the rebels and others pushed for imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.

‘Many reservations’
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Paris had “many reservations” on intervention in Libya “because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs.”

But before the summit he said he and British Prime Minister David Cameron were “ready on condition that the UN wishes, that the Arab League accepts and the Libyan opposition agrees, for targeted actions if Mr Gaddafi uses chemical weapons or air strikes against peaceful citizens.”

A European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, clarified that there had never been any talk of joint French-British action.

Sarkozy also urged his European partners to follow France’s lead and officially recognise the Libyan opposition, and EU leaders took a step in that direction by saying the opposition is a “legitimate interlocutor.”

Arab League foreign ministers are to meet on Saturday to discuss ways to stop Gaddafi from bombing his own citizens.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, whose country holds the current rotating EU chairmanship, said “the expectation is that they will support a no-fly zone under some conditions.

“The best thing I think would be that a concerted action would be planned and implemented with the countries of the Arab League.”

‘Day of Rage’
While Britain and France have been pushing for the UN Security Council to impose an air exclusion zone over the oil-rich country, the council remains split on the issue and even allies Germany and Italy have sounded words of warning.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged caution. “A no-fly zone is not like putting up a traffic sign; it is an attack with bombs, with rockets, with weapons.”

“What would we do when it doesn’t work? Would we then go in with ground troops? I am very sceptical about this,” he said as the summit started.

Meanwhile, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) defence ministers have agreed to send more ships towards Libya’s coast but delayed any decision on imposing a no-fly zone, saying clear UN approval was needed first.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said proposals for a no-fly zone would be presented to Nato on Tuesday.

But Clinton, who will travel to the Middle East next week and meet senior anti-Gaddafi figures, stressed that any final decision had to be taken by the United Nations.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, police opened fire Friday on anti-government protesters in the southern Yemen city of Aden, a day after embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh offered sweeping political reform, witnesses said.

At least 14 people were injured, including two who appeared to have been shot with live bullets, hospital staff said.

In Cairo, hundreds of Egyptians holding up crosses and Korans massed Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest against sectarianism, following religious clashes that left at least 13 people dead.

And in Saudi Arabia, a massive security operation appeared to have deterred protesters from a planned “Day of Rage” to press for democratic reform in the conservative kingdom. — 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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