Libyan Rebel Advance Halted – Sirte Blasted By NATO Fighter Jets: UPDATED

28 Mar

Loyalist troops on Monday halted a rebel advance on Moamer Kadhafi‘s home town Sirte, which was pounded overnight by coalition jets after NATO took command of military operations in Libya.

Libyan rebels push westwards in hot pursuit of Moamer Kadhafi’s forces Enlarge photo

An AFP reporter said rebels who for the past two days have raced westwards towards Sirte came under heavy machine-gun fire from regime loyalists in pick-up trucks on the road from Bin Jawad to Nofilia.

The rebels on Sunday seized Bin Jawad, 140 kilometres (85 miles) east of Sirte, after retaking the key oil town of Ras Lanuf as they advanced with the support of coalition air strikes on Kadhafi’s forces.

After coming under fire on Monday, the insurgents pulled back into Bin Jawad and opened up with heavy artillery.

An AFP reporter said nine powerful explosions early Monday rocked Sirte, 360 kilometres (225 miles) east of Tripoli, as warplanes flew overhead and the coalition operation to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya entered its ninth day.

The explosions, between 0420 GMT and 0435 GMT, followed two loud blasts on Sunday evening blamed by state television on an air raid by coalition forces.

NATO finally took full command of military operations in Libya from a US-led coalition on Sunday, enabling the alliance to strike at Kadhafi forces should they threaten civilians.

Alliance officials cautioned, however, that the transfer of command would take 48 to 72 hours.

Pressed by Western powers, notably the United States and Italy, to take the helm as swiftly as possible, ambassadors from the 28-nation alliance approved the transfer after overcoming French and Turkish concerns.

“Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Kadhafi regime,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“NATO will implement all aspects of the UN resolution. Nothing more, nothing less,” he said.

Rasmussen will join foreign ministers from more than 35 countries at a conference in London on Tuesday to discuss coalition military action against Libya, his office said.

The command transfer came as Tripoli also came under attack by what state television called “the colonial aggressor,” hours ahead of US President Barack Obama’s planned address Monday in Washington to explain US involvement.

Witnesses in the capital said the strikes targeted the road to the airport 10 kilometres (six miles) outside the city, as well as the Ain Zara neighbourhood on its eastern outskirts.

State news agency JANA reported that coalition warplanes had also launched a dawn air raid on residential areas of Kadhafi’s southern stronghold of Sebha.

“Crusader forces bombed residential districts of Sebha at dawn, damaging homes and causing several casualties,” the agency said, without giving a toll.

Opposition representatives in Benghazi, meanwhile, were trying to form a government-in-waiting.

At present, the official voice of Libya’s opposition rests with the so-called Provisional Transitional National Council (PTNC), a group of 31 members representing the country’s major cities and towns.

Qatar on Monday became the second nation, after France, to recognise the PTNC as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Libyan people, the Gulf state’s QNA state news agency said.

Of the 31 PTNC members, the names of only 13 have been publicly revealed: council spokesmen argue it is still too dangerous to identify members in areas still controlled by Kadhafi.

The rebels promised the uprising would not further hamper oil production in areas under their control, and the opposition plans to begin exporting oil “in less than a week,” a rebel representative said.

“We are producing about 100,000 to 130,000 barrels a day, we can easily up that to about 300,000 a day,” Ali Tarhoni, the rebel representative responsible for economy, finance and oil, told a news conference.

The rebels, on the verge of losing their Benghazi stronghold before the air strikes began on March 19, on Saturday seized back Ajdabiya and Brega, 160 and 240 kilometres (100 and 150 miles) to the west.

Spurred on by the air war, the rag-tag rebel band thrust another 100 kilometres past Brega to win back Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, routing Kadhafi loyalists.

They saw Monday’s skirmish on the outskirts of Bin Jawad as being but a temporary halt to their westwards push, confident that coalition warplanes would reopen the road to Sirte for them.

Pick-ups flying the green flag of Tripoli and mounted with heavy machine guns opened up on the rebels who replied with “Stalin organ” multiple rocket launchers and cannon fire.

A salvo of shells from Kadhafi’s forces slammed into sand dunes near Bin Jawad and a rebel fighter fell.

A 10-minute incoming artillery barrage panicked the thousand or so rebels along the road outside Bin Jawad, sending them fleeing in disorder.

Had Kadhafi’s guns hit the road proper, there would have been a massacre among the insurgents, some of whom were armed only with shotguns.

“It won’t be as easy as we thought to take Sirte and then march on Tripoli,” said 20-year-old rebel fighter Ahmad al-Badri, wearing incomplete battledress and clutching an old Kalashnikov.

Instead of a flak jacket, he wore a highly visible orange life jacket.

“But we won’t stop — we’ll advance. They can’t hold us up for long,” Badri added.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said intervention in Libya was not vital to Washington’s interests, but explained: “You had a potentially significantly destabilising event taking place in Libya that put at risk potentially the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt.”

He added: “Egypt is central to the future of the Middle East.”

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A Libyan rebel is wrapped in the rebel flag as he jubilates on the front line outside of Bin Jawaad, 150 km east of Sirte, central Libya, Monday, Marc
AP – A Libyan rebel is wrapped in the rebel flag as he jubilates on the front line outside of Bin Jawaad, …

 
By RYAN LUCAS, Associated Press Ryan Lucas, Associated Press :

BIN JAWWAD, Libya – Rebel forces on Monday fought their way to the doorstep of Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold guarding the road to the capital Tripoli.

The lightning rebel advance of the past few days, backed by powerful international airstrikes, has restored to the opposition all the territory they lost over the past week and brought them to within 60 miles (100 miles) of this bastion of Gadhafi’s power in the center of the country.

“Sirte will not be easy to take,” said Gen. Hamdi Hassi, a rebel commander at the small town of Bin Jawwad, just 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the front. “Now because of NATO strikes on (the government’s) heavy weapons, we’re almost fighting with the same weapons, only we have Grad rockets now and they don’t.”

Russia, however, has criticized the international strikes against government forces that made the rebel advance possible, saying they have overstepped their U.N. mandate to protect civilians by taking sides in a civil war.

The U.S. launched six Tomahawk missiles Sunday and early Monday from navy positions in the Mediterranean Sea, two defense officials said Monday on condition of anonymity because they were not yet authorized to release the information.

That brought to 199 the number of the long-range cruise missiles fired by international forces in the week-old military intervention, one official said.

International air forces flew 110 missions late Sunday and early Monday — 75 of them strike missions. Targets included Gadhafi ammunition stores, air defenses and ground forces, including vehicles and tanks, a third official said.

Libya’s rebels have recovered hundreds of miles (kilometers) of flat, uninhabited territory at record speeds after Gadhafi’s forces were forced to pull back by the strikes that began March 19.

In a symbolic diplomatic victory for the opposition, the tiny state of Qatar recognized Libya’s rebels as the legitimate representatives of the country — the first Arab state to do so.

Hassi said there was fighting now just outside the small hamlet of Nawfaliyah, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Sirte and scouting parties had found the road ahead to be heavily mined.

He added that the current rebel strategy was to combine military assault with an attempt to win over some of the local tribes loyal to Gadhafi over to their side.

“There’s Gadhafi and then there’s circles around him of supporters, each circle is slowly peeling off and disappearing,” Hassi said. “If they rise up it would make our job easier.”

Witnesses in Sirte reported Monday there had been air strikes the night before and again early in the morning, but the town was quiet, and dozens of fighters loyal to Gadhafi could be seen roaming the streets.

Moving quickly westward, the advance retraced their steps in the first rebel march toward the capital that was stopped March 5 by Gadhafi’s superior weaponry. But this time, the world’s most powerful air forces have eased the way by pounding the government’s military assets for the past week.

The east of the country shook off nearly 42 years of Gadhafi’s rule in a series of popular demonstrations starting in mid-February and inspired by similar successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Gadhafi’s forces crushed similar uprising in the west of the country.

Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gadhafi-controlled west along the Mediterranean coast. It is a center of support for Gadhafi and is expected to be difficult for rebels to take.

West of Sirte is the embattled city of Misrata, the sole place in rebel hands in the country’s west. Residents reported fighting between rebels and Gadhafi loyalists who fired from tanks on residential areas.

Rida al-Montasser, of the media committee of Misrata, said that nine young men were killed and 23 others wounded when Gadhafi brigades shelled their position in the northwestern part of the city on Sunday night. He also said that the port was bombed.

Turkey’s Anatolia new agency said a Turkish civilian ferry carrying 15 medics, three ambulances and medical equipment was heading for Misrata to help treat some 1,300 people injured in attacks there.

Meanwhile, international airstrikes have continued against Libya, including the southern town of Sebha, reported the state news agency. The area remains strongly loyal to Gadhafi and is a major transit point for ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger fighting for the government.

JANA said the strikes destroyed a number of houses, though past attacks on Sebha, 385 miles (620 kilometers) south of Tripoli, targeted the airport and the flow of foreign fighters reinforcing the regime.

Britain’s Defense Ministry announced Monday that its Tornado aircraft had attacked ammunition bunkers around Sebha in the southern desert in the early hours of the morning.

After retaking two key oil complexes along the coastal highway in the past two days, rebels promised to quickly restart Libya’s stalled oil exports, prompting a slight drop in the soaring price of crude oil to around $105 a barrel.

The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against the protesters who demanded that he step down. The airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi’s forces, allowing rebels to advance less than two weeks after they had seemed at the brink of defeat.

The assault on Sirte, where most civilians are believed to support Gadhafi, however, potentially represents an expansion of the international mission to being more directly involved with regime change.

“This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces,” Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in the capital, Tripoli. “They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war.”

His position found some support in Russia, where Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said strikes on Gadhafi’s forces would amount to interference in what he called Libya’s civil war, and thus would breach the U.N. Security Council resolution that envisaged a no-fly zone only to protect civilians.

The tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, however, has formally recognized the rebels as the legitimate representatives of the country and promised to help them sell their crude oil on the international market.

Qatar has been well ahead of other Arab countries in embracing the rebels and is also participating in the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya.

Turkey, meanwhile, has confirmed that even as rebel forces advance on Sirte it has been working with the government and the opposition to set up a cease-fire.

“We are one of the very few countries that are speaking to both sides,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selcuk Unal said, without confirming whether Turkey had offered to act as mediator.

Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also told reporters his country will take over the running of the airport in Benghazi to facilitate the transport of humanitarian aid to Libya. He did not say when, however.

_____

Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia in Istanbul and Paula Jelinek in Washington, contributed to this report from Istanbul.

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