Bin Jawwad: Rebel forces fought their way Monday toward Moammar Gaddafi`s hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold guarding the road to the capital Tripoli.
Their rapid advance came on the back of international airstrikes that have battered Gaddafi`s air force, armor and troops over the past week. The rebels have now recaptured all the territory they lost over the past week and brought them closer than ever to Sirte — within 60 miles (100 kilometers).
Some residents were fleeing the city of 100,000, as soldiers from a brigade commanded by Gaddafi`s son al-Saadi and allied militiamen streamed to positions on the city`s outskirts to defend it, witnesses said. Sirte — where a significant air and military base is located — was hit by airstrikes Sunday night and Monday morning, witnesses said, but they did not know what was targeted.
The advance on Sirte and the flip-flop in the conflict`s momentum brought into sharper relief the central ambiguity of the international mission in Libya. When Gaddafi`s forces were besieging rebel-held cities in the east last week, allied airstrikes on his troops more directly fit into the UN mandate of protecting civilians. But those strikes have now allowed rebels to go on the assault.
Russia on Monday criticized the international campaign, saying it had overstepped its U.N. mandate to protect civilians and had taken sides in a civil war.
NATO`s commander for the operation, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of Canada, deflected suggestions that international airstrikes against Gaddafi`s forces were essentially providing air cover for advancing rebels, insisting that the military alliance`s mission is purely designed to protect civilians.
"Our goal is to protect and help the civilians and population centers under the threat of attack," he said.
But in Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu noted that the allied operation was launched in response to "the systematic attacks by Col. Gaddafi against his own people."
"That is how this all started. We have to remember that," she said.
Sirte has both strategic and symbolic value. Over the years, Gaddafi has made it effectively Libya`s second capital, building up what had been a quiet agricultural community with lavish conference halls where Arab and African summits were held. The city is dominated by members of the Libyan leader`s Gadhadhfa tribe, but many in another large Sirte tribe — the Firjan — are believed to resent his rule, and rebels are hoping to encourage them and other tribes there to rise up to help in their capture of the city.
Its fall to the rebels would largely open their way to move on the capital, Tripoli, 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the northwest along the Mediterranean coast.
About halfway between the two lies Libya`s third largest city, Misrata. It has been in rebel hands since early on in the nearly month-and-a-half-old uprising but has been under heavy siege by Gaddafi forces for weeks. Misrata came under renewed heavy shelling on Monday, witnesses said. There is little but empty desert highway and a few small hamlets between Sirte and Misrata.
Gamal Mughrabi, a 46-year-old rebel fighter, said there are both anti- and pro-Gaddafi forces inside Sirte and predicted a tough fight.
"Gaddafi is not going to give up Sirte easily because straightaway after Sirte is Misrata, and after that it`s straight to Gaddafi`s house," he said. "So Sirte is the last line of defense."
The government appeared to control only the outskirts of the city.
Close to Misrata, there were many damaged buildings, their walled pockmarked by bullets, with green flags waving to signal support for Gaddafi. A clinic was completely destroyed, burned with its glass shattered.
The one main street that appeared to be controlled by the government was deserted. Windows were shattered by explosions and all the buildings had bullet marks. Charred tanks, oil tankers, and blackened cars littered the streets and there was a hill of sand that had been used as a barrier during earlier battles.
About 200 Gaddafi supporters staged a rally, waving green flags.
In a symbolic diplomatic victory for the opposition, the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar recognized Libya`s rebels as the legitimate representatives of the country — the first Arab state to do so. Qatar promised to help the rebels sell crude oil from captured installations on the international market. Qatar has been well ahead of other Arab countries in embracing the rebels and is also participating in the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya.
The Libyan rebels took control of the eastern half of the country early on in the uprising, setting up their capital in the country`s second-largest city of Benghazi. Much of the fighting between government supporters and opponents has been along a coastal road that heads out of Benghazi and west through a couple major oil ports, toward Sirte and beyond that, Tripoli.
The rebels have recovered hundreds of miles (kilometers) of flat, uninhabited territory at record speeds after Gaddafi`s forces were forced to pull back by the international strikes that began March 19. When the first strikes were launched, regime troops were deep in the rebel-held territory, storming toward the opposition capital of Benghazi, 370 miles (more than 600 kilometers) east of Sirte.
A rebel commander among the fighters advancing on Sirte acknowledged that their offensive would not have been possible without the strikes, which he said had evened the two sides` firepower.