Action in Libya could last 'awhile,' official says

  • Mon Mar 21st 2011

ZEITOUNIYA, Libya (AP) - The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "awhile," a top French official said Monday, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels said they were fighting to reclaim a city under the Libyan leader's control.

Oil prices held above $102 a barrel after the second night of allied strikes in the OPEC nation raised fears of prolonged fighting that has already slowed Libyan oil production to a trickle.

Henri Guaino, a top advisor to the French president, said two nights of bombing runs and missile attacks had hobbled Libya's air defenses, stalled Gadhafi's troops and all but ended attacks on civilians. A cruise missile late Sunday blasted Gadhafi's residential compound near his iconic tent, and fighter jets destroyed a line of tanks moving on the rebel capital.

It was not known where Gadhafi was when the missile hit Sunday, but it seemed to show that he is not safe, even while the allies trade nuances over whether the Libyan leader's fall is a goal of their campaign.

Mohammed Abdul-Mullah, a 38-year-old civil engineer from Benghazi, had fallen back in the rebels' retreat in the days before the international intervention. Now in Zeitouniya, he said there was no resistance from government troops after the campaign began.

"They were running, by foot and in small cars," he said. "The balance has changed alot. But pro-Gadhafi forces are still strong. They are a professional military and they have good equipment. Ninety percent of us rebels are civilians, while Gadhafi's people are professional fighters."

Rebels said they were trying to reclaim the nearby city of Ajdabiya, which had been surrounded by government troops before the international campaign began. "There are pro-Gadhafi forces inside fighting rebel fighters. There is fighting and shelling going on," said Ahmad Mohammed, 26, who returned from the front Monday and manning a checkpoint in Zeitouniya.

New also fighting broke out Monday in Misrata, the last rebel-held city in western Libya, according to reports from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.

The U.N. resolution authorizing international military action in Libya not only sets up a no-fly zone but allows "all necessary measures" to prevent attacks on civilians.

In Cairo, a group of Libyans angry at the international intervention in their homeland blocked the path of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon following his meeting at the Arab League on Monday.

Ban had finished talks with the Arab League chief Amr Moussa and left the organization's headquarters in Cairo to walk around nearby Tahrir Square, the centerpiece of Egyptian uprising that last month toppled Hosni Mubarak, when dozens of Libyan protesters converged on him and his security detail.

The Libyans, carrying pictures of Moammar Gadhafi and banners critical of the United States and United Nation, blocked Ban's path, forcing him to return to the league and leave from another exit.

The resolution makes Gadhafi's forces potential targets for U.S. and European strikes.

U.S., British and French planes went after tanks headed toward Benghazi, in the opposition-held eastern half of the country. On Sunday, at least seven demolished tanks smoldered in a field 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Benghazi, many of them with their turrets and treads blown off, alongside charred armored personnel carriers, jeeps and SUVs of the kind used by Gadhafi fighters.

"I feel like in two days max we will destroy Gadhafi," said Ezzeldin Helwani, 35, a rebel standing next to the smoldering wreckage of an armored personnel carrier, the air thick with smoke and the pungent smell of burning rubber. In a grisly sort of battle trophy, celebrating fighters hung a severed goat's head with a cigarette in its mouth from the turret of one of the gutted tanks.

The strikes that began early Sunday gave respite to Benghazi, which the day before had been under a heavy attack that killed at least 120 people. The calm highlighted the dramatic turnaround that the allied strikes bring to Libya's month-old upheaval: For the past 10 days, Gadhafi's forces had been on a triumphant offensive against the rebel-held east, driving opposition fighters back with the overwhelming firepower of tanks, artillery, warplanes and warships.

The U.S. military, for now at the lead of the international campaign, is trying to walk a fine line over the end game of the assault. It is avoiding for now any appearance that it aims to take out Gadhafi or help the rebels oust him, instead limiting its stated goals to protecting civilians.

Britain also is treading carefully. Foreign Secretary William Hague refused Monday to say if Gadhafi would or could be assassinated, insisting he would not "get drawn into details about what or whom may be targeted."

"I'm not going to speculate on the targets," Hague said in a heated interview with BBC radio. "That depends on the circumstances at the time."

A military official said Air Force B-2 stealth bombers flew 25 hours in a round trip from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and dropped 45 2,000-pound bombs.

What happens if rebel forces eventually go on the offensive against Gadhafi's troops remains unclear.

Rebels defended their support of the international intervention into Libya - apparently feeling the sting of criticism from other Libyans and Arabs who warned the country could be divided or collapse into a civil war.

"Libya will not turn into Somalia or Iraq. It will not be divided. We are battling - the Libyan people - are battling a gang of mercenaries," Mohammed al-Misrati, a rebel spokesman in the stronghold of Misrata, told Al-Jazeera on Monday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said late Sunday that the U.S. expects turn over control of the operation to a coalition headed by France, Britain or NATO "in a matter of days," reflecting concern that the U.S. military was stretched thin by its current missions. Turkey was blocking NATO action, which requires agreement by all 28 members of the alliance.

Sunday night, heavy anti-aircraft fire erupted repeatedly in the capital, Tripoli, with arcs of red tracer bullets and exploding shells in the dark sky - marking the start of a second night of international strikes. Gadhafi supporters in the streets shot automatic weapons in the air in a show of defiance. It was not immediately known what was being targeted in the new strikes.

Gadhafi vowed to fight on. In a phone call to Libyan state television Sunday, he said he would not let up on Benghazi and said the government had opened up weapons depots to all Libyans, who were now armed with "automatic weapons, mortars and bombs."

"We promise you a long war," he said.

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