Libya rebel city tense as Gaddafi ultimatum expires

The besieged Libyan rebel city of Misrata was relatively calm on Tuesday but braced for new attacks by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces as an ultimatum to surrender expired, a day after shelling killed 14 people.

However, fighting continued in the Al-Ghiran area near the airport, which rebels have been trying to capture from Gaddafi forces are based.

In their eastern stronghold of Benghazi, the rebels warned that they would soon run out of funds unless Western governments make them a $3-billion loan secured on frozen Gaddafi regime assets.

Nato said aircraft under its command carried out 158 sorties on Monday, 56 of them strikes against ground targets, which had included 12 ammunition caches and three self-propelled artillery pieces around Misrata.

Loyalist tanks had thrust into the western suburbs of the oil-rich North African nation’s third city from their airport base, triggering clashes that wounded more than 30 people.

Government spokesperson Mussa Ibrahim announced late on Friday the ultimatum for rebel fighters in Misrata to cease fire, offering amnesty if they laid down their weapons.

The rebels, who have been under siege by loyalists for some two months, promptly rejected it.

“We will not surrender. We win or we die,” said the rebels’ top commander, Ibrahim Bet-Almal, whose son was killed in fighting on April 9.

‘Not worried’
With the airport in government hands, the rebels are entirely dependent on supply by sea, and with the port repeated shelled by Gaddafi troops, few vessels are docking, resulting in a worsening food shortage.

Customers queuing outside a Misrata bakery on Tuesday put on a brave face about the looming expiry of the regime’s ultimatum.

“I’m not worried. Gaddafi won’t do anything,” said Abd al-Bari, a 20-year-old student. “He’s lying as usual. God willing, he will do nothing.”

But Bari expressed serious concern about the port.

“If it’s blocked off, the boats that have been providing us with aid won’t come any more and then we will have really big problems,” he said.

The threat to Misrata’s maritime lifeline comes not only from Gaddafi’s rockets.

Nato forces were searching for a stray anti-ship mine laid last week, the alliance said. Four small boats were caught dropping three mines off the port, but only two were found and disarmed.

‘Going slowly but steadily’
However, Nato said the port is still open.

“Thanks to the continuous military action which has been undertaken vis-a-vis the port of Misrata and the city, the port is still quite safe,” Italian vice-admiral Rinaldo Veri said, adding that rebels had expanded the city perimeter under their control.

“Besides the mine issue, for the moment there is clear access into the port of Misrata,” said Veri, adding that Nato had opened a sea corridor and that the port remained open.

Veri denied that the conflict had reached a stalemate and rejected regime claims that Nato was trying to assassinate Gaddafi.

“Let’s say that we are going slowly but steadily and after attacking the frontline forces now we are trying to get hold of everything that [Gaddafi] can use to supply his frontline forces,” he said.

In Benghazi, the rebels said they were in no position to resume significant oil exports as their current priority was limited to securing the production facilities under their control.

Their plea for an emergency credit line from the United States and the two European governments to recognise their administration — France and Italy — came ahead of a meeting of the International Contact Group on Libya. “The liquidity that we have domestically most likely will carry us through three weeks, at the most four weeks,” said Ali Tarhoni, who holds the economy and oil portfolio in the rebel administration.

“I think if we get lines of credit from our friends in France, Italy and the United States we will be fine,” he said, adding that “we need $2-billion to $3-billion”.

That would enable his administration to get through the next three to four months, he said.

Gaddafi’s frozen assets
Tarhoni said a consensus had already been reached between the rebels and the major powers which the rebel leadership will meet in Rome on Thursday to set up a credit lines mechanism.

The rebel leadership no longer wants Gaddafi’s assets to be unfrozen and given to its administration but for credit lines to be opened that would be secured by the countries where such assets are being held.

“The consensus is that there will be lines of credit backed by these assets,” he said, adding that that consensus would be formalised at the Rome meeting.

Tarhoni did not specifically say that the three countries had agreed to provide what he is seeking.

He said he believed Gaddafi’s frozen assets around the world amounted to $165-billion.

The Rome meeting is aimed at finding a political solution to the conflict in Libya, amid a bloody stalemate in the fighting and an escalating humanitarian crisis.

The International Contact Group talks will also discuss whether to arm the uprising against Gaddafi and how to finance the rebels, including through oil sales from eastern Libya on world markets.

Gadaffi’s departure ‘inevitable’
But Tarhoni said significant exports were not on the cards any time soon. “The top priority is to protect the installations, not to produce,” he said.

Ahead of the Rome talks, Nato’s sole Muslim-majority member Turkey upped the pressure on Gaddafi.

“We wish that the Libyan leader pulls out from Libya and cedes power immediately — for himself and for the future of his country — without causing more bloodshed, tears and destruction,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Gaddafi’s departure has become “inevitable.”

It was the first time Turkey had publicly urged Gaddafi to step down, even though Erdogan said he had previously conveyed the same message in contacts with the Tripoli regime.

“Unfortunately, Muammar Gaddafi ignored our advice and … opted for bloodshed, oppression and attacking his own people,” Erdogan said.

Gaddafi “must return power to its genuine owners — the Libyan people”, he said. “Libya is not the property of a single man or one family.”

In other developments, Italy will aim to set a deadline for military operations in Libya, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was quoted by ANSA news agency as saying on Tuesday.

Italy “will try, together with international organisations like Nato and with its allies, to set a deadline”. — Sapa-AFP

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