Libyan troops close in on Benghazi

Libyan forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi inched closer to the rebel-stronghold of Benghazi amid fierce battle in the last major town of Ajdabiya.

Updated: Mar 18, 2011, 00:03 AM IST

Cairo/Washington: Libyan forces loyal to
Muammar Gaddafi today inched closer to the rebel-stronghold of
Benghazi amid fierce battle in the last major town of
Ajdabiya, as the US mulled the possibility of air strikes and
other options to stop his military.

Heavy fighting raged around the key town of Misurata
and Ajdabiya, as rebel forces made last ditch efforts to stop
two tanks-led columns closing on the two port cities of
Benghazi and Tobruk, which would give the Libyan leader
total sway over his country.

The rebels claimed to have shot down two fighter
aircraft bombarding Benghazi amid reports that at least 30
people were killed and several wounded in the fighting.

Al Jazeera quoted state-run Libyan television as
saying that Gaddafi`s forces were on the outskirts of

"The town of Zuwaytinah is under control (of
loyalists) and armed forces are on the outskirts of Benghazi,"
the Arab channel said.

Wary of the speed at which Gaddafi`s forces were
moving, the White House pushed for an international response
in Libya as a top US official said Washington was
contemplating steps that could go beyond a `no fly` zone.

As intense battles raged, the UN Security Council was
all set to meet to vote on a draft resolution that would not
only introduce a `no fly` zone over Libya, but may also
authorise the use of air strikes to stop the advance of
Gaddafi`s forces.

Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, said: "We are
discussing very seriously and leading efforts in the Council
around a range of actions that we believe could be effective
in protecting civilians".

Claiming that Libyan forces seemed determined to kill
as many people as possible, she said "many different actions"
were being considered.

"The US view is that we need to be prepared to
contemplate steps that include but perhaps go beyond a no-fly
zone," she said.

Top US officials said military action could be
directed not only at Gaddafi`s air force, but at artillery and
communications systems too.

The change in the US mood appeared to be driven by the
worsening plight of the rebels, with TV footage showing that
lightly armed rebels were being pummeled by Gaddafi`s forces.

Apprehending a combined western move against him under
the aegis of the UN Security Council, Gaddafi`s son Saif
al-Islam set a "48 hours" deadline for his forces to capture
the twin cities of Benghazi and Tobruk, BBC reported.

Facing an unprecedented month-long uprising against
his 41-year-old rule, Gaddafi unleashed his forces to wrest
back territories seized by the rebels, Al Jazeera channel
said. The battle appeared to be uneven as TV images showed
burnt out vehicles of the rebel forces in a roadside just
outside Ajdabiya, while Libyan government forces displayed
tanks, artillery guns, mortars and mobile rocket launchers,
much heavier weapons than used by the opposition forces.

The western powers apprehend that Gaddafi`s forces
would use fighter jets to bombard urban areas of Benghazi.
Martin Nesirky, a spokesman of Ban Ki-moon, said the
secretary-general was "gravely concerned" about signs that
Gaddafi was preparing to attack Benghazi.

"A campaign to bombard such an urban centre would
massively place civilian lives at risk," he said.

Al Jazeera quoting residents in Misurata and Ajdabiyah
said pitched battles were going on in and around the two key
towns. Misurata is 150 km from the capital Tripoli while
Ajdabiyah guards the road to Tobruk and the Egyptian border in
the rebel-held east.

Gaddafi told a group of young people from Misurata
that "battle continues at Misurata .... that will be the
decisive battle".

"You are going to be called to take up arms and ...
you will take part in the battle," he was quoted as saying.

Gaddafi urged the gathering "not to leave Misurata
hostage in the hands of a handful of madmen".

Linking the rebels with al Qaeda, Gaddafi said he
would not not hold dialogue with them.

"These are not people who we can consider holding
dialogue with, because al Qaeda does not hold dialogue with
anyone. If people want to talk to al Qaeda, then they should
talk with (Osama) bin Laden," he was quoted as saying by the
French Le Figaro newspaper.

"It has no value. Its leader (Mustafa Abdel Jalil) is
clueless, a sad case. These people will no doubt flee to
Egypt," he said.

As the defiant leader`s well-trained and heavily-armed
forces registered major successes in recent days, a rebel
spokesman in Misurata claimed yesterday that they had beaten
back an attack by Libyan forces on the city, killing 80 of
Gaddafi`s men.

At the UN headquarters in New York, Ibrahim Dabbashi,
Libya`s deputy envoy to the UN who had turned against Gaddafi,
called on the Security Council to pass fast a resolution
imposing a no-fly zone over the North African country.

As the 15-member body debated the draft resolution to
impose a no-fly zone over Libya, Dabbashi asked the world
community to act quickly and warned of "genocide" Ajdaibya and
"ethnic cleaning" in villages in the western part of the

"We think that in the coming hours we will see real
genocide in Ajdabiya," he said. "The international community
has to act within the next ten hours."

Dabbashi also expressed confidence that the present
draft resolution would be modified to include "air strikes."

The text of the draft resolution, co-authored by
Britain and France, was circulated by Lebanon, a non-permanent
member of the Council, on Tuesday.

Separately, the UN Security Council rejected a Russian
proposal to pass a smaller resolution calling for a ceasefire
in Libya. "We did come up with the idea of doing a brief but
punchy ceasefire resolution," Russian envoy to the UN Vitaly
Churkin said.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney
expressed hope that the US-led international community would
move quickly on Libya.

"We are very heartened by the strong statement from
the Arab League (which is supporting a no-fly zone over
Libya)," he said.

Carney said said it is vital for these kinds of
actions to be international in nature".

"And in this region it is vital for the support of
nations in region in order to make it clear that this is not
the West or the US dictating an outcome in a country like
Libya, but it is the international community that is making
demands and taking action very much in concert with other Arab
nations," the White House official said.