Libyan forces pull back from western city

  • Wed Mar 23rd 2011

AJDABIYA, Libya – International airstrikes forced Moammar Gadhafi's forces to withdraw tanks that were besieging a rebel-held western city Wednesday, residents said, while people fleeing a strategic city in the east said the situation was deteriorating amid relentless shelling.

Western diplomats, meanwhile, said an agreement was emerging about NATO would take responsibility for a no-fly zone over Libya after the United States which has effectively commanded the operation until now — reiterated that it was committed to the transition.

NATO warships were to begin patrolling off Libya's coast Wednesday to enforce the U.N. arms embargo.

The international coalition continued airstrikes and patrols aimed at enforcing a no-fly zone and protecting Libyan civilians early Wednesday, but the report that Misrata was targeted could not immediately be confirmed.

U.S. Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the on-scene commander, said Tuesday the coalition was "considering all options" in response to intelligence showing troops were targeting civilians in the city, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.

A doctor in Misrata said the tanks fled shortly after the airstrikes began around midnight, giving the city a much-needed reprieve after more than a week of attacks and a punishing blockade. The city is inaccessible to human rights monitors or journalists.

"There were very loud explosions. It was hard to see the planes," the doctor said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if Gadhafi's forces take the city. "Today for the first time in a week, the bakeries opened their doors."

He said the situation was better but still dangerous, with pro-Gadhafi snipers shooting at people from rooftops inside the city.

The airstrikes targeted the aviation academy and the lot outside the central hospital, which was under maintenance.

"Some of the tanks were hit and others fled," he said. "We fear the tanks that fled will return if the airstrikes stop."

The withdrawal of the tanks from Misrata was a rare success story for the rebels, who hold much of the east but have struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign, which appears to have hobbled Gadhafi's air defenses and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat.

Neither side has been able to muster the force for an outright victory, raising concerns of a prolonged conflict.

Pro-Gadhafi troops who have besieged Ajdabiya — a city of 140,000 that is the gateway to the east — attacked a few hundred rebels gathered on the outskirts Wednesday. The rebels fired back with Katyusha rockets but have found themselves outgunned by the Libyan government's force.

Plumes of smoke rose over the skyline of the city, which is 95 miles (150 kilometers) south of the de-facto rebel capital of Benghazi.

"The weapons they have are heavy weapons and what we have are light weapons," said Fawzi Hamid, a 33-year-old who joined the Libyan military when he was younger but is now on the rebels' side. "The Gadhafi forces are more powerful than us so we are depending on airstrikes."

People fleeing the violence said the rebels had control of the city center while Gadhafi's forces were holding the outskirts.

"The pro-Gadhafi forces are just shooting everywhere. There is no electricity, the center of the city has been totally destroyed, even the hospital has been hit," 28-year-old Hafez Boughara said as he drove a white van filled with women and children on a desert road to avoid the main highway.

Mustafa Rani, 43, who was driving a hatchback with seven small children and his wife, described heavy shelling and shooting.

Gadhafi was defiant in his first public appearance in a week late Tuesday, promising enthusiastic supporters at his residential compound in Tripoli, "In the short term, we'll beat them, in the long term, we'll beat them."

Libyan state TV broadcast what it said was live coverage of Gadhafi's less-than-five-minute statement. Standing on a balcony, he denounced the coalition bombing attacks on his forces.

"O great Libyan people, you have to live now, this time of glory, this is a time of glory that we are living," he said.

State TV said Gadhafi was speaking from his Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound, the same one hit by a cruise missile Sunday night. Reporters were not allowed to enter the compound as he spoke.

Heavy anti-aircraft fire and loud explosions sounded in Tripoli after nightfall, possibly a new attack in the international air campaign that so far has focused on air defenses and Gadhafi command and control sites to set up the no-fly zone but also has included some strikes on his tanks and ground troops. Two explosions were heard in the city before daybreak Wednesday.

Libyan state TV showed footage of a house that was demolished and burning. Weeping women slapped their faces and heads in grief while men carried a barefoot girl covered in blood on a stretcher to an ambulance. A man screamed "a whole family was killed." The TV labeled the footage as "the crusader imperialism bombs civilians."

Gadhafi's regime has alleged that dozens of civilians have been killed in the international bombardment, but Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj. Chris Perrine, a Pentagon spokesman and other coalition officials said no claims of civilian casualties have been independently verified.

One of Gadhafi's sons may have been killed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News on Tuesday. She cited unconfirmed reports and did not say which son she meant. She said the "evidence is not sufficient" to confirm this.

Clinton also told ABC that people close to Gadhafi are contacting people abroad to explore options for the future, but she did not say that one of the options might be exile. She said they were asking, "What do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?"

The coalition includes the U.S., Canada, several European countries and Qatar. Qatar was expected to start flying air patrols over Libya by this weekend, becoming the first member of the Arab League to participate directly in the military mission.

The Obama administration is eager to relinquish leadership of the hurriedly assembled coalition, but divisions have emerged over who would take over.

A compromise proposal would see NATO take a key role in the military operation guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world. Officials said the North Atlantic Council — NATO's top decision-making body which already has approved military plans for enforcing the no-fly zone — may decide to start them later Wednesday.

Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon endorsed the proposal for handing over control of the Libya operation to a political committee. "We are comfortable with that," she said.

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