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Kadafi forces reportedly moving against rebels in Libya's east

It's unclear whether loyalists or opponents hold the key city of Port Brega. Kadafi, meanwhile, broadcasts a speech saying he holds no power anyway, unlike "the presidents of other countries."

March 02, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Mourners lower a victim of the Libyan uprising into his grave at a cemetery in Benghazi, the nation's second-largest city.
Mourners lower a victim of the Libyan uprising into his grave at a cemetery… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya — Forces loyal to embattled Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi were reported to be moving Wednesday against areas held by the opposition in the country's east.

But details of the reports conflicted, and the status of one key city, Port Brega, was unclear.

At first, Al Jazeera, citing the channel's correspondent, reported that pro-Kadafi security forces had taken control there with more than 500 military vehicles. The Al Arabiya channel reported "random bombing" of the city, citing an unnamed eyewitness.

But hours later, an Al Jazeera correspondent was quoted as saying that the opposition forces had retaken the city. Al Arabiya, citing its correspondent in eastern Libya, said that 14 people had been killed so far in the fighting and that forces loyal to Kadafi held the city's airport.

Amid the reported clashes, Kadafi took to the airwaves in a lengthy speech before local dignitaries, supporters and a smattering of foreign journalists. He noted that he had resigned from his official posts and handed power to the people 34 years ago Wednesday, marked as a major holiday in Libya.

He vowed to "gouge the eyes of those casting doubt on the people's authority." Crowds of supporters in the venue punched their fists into the air and punctuated his speech with slogans of support.

"The people are the master," he said. "They have the power in their hands. I carried out a revolution in 1969, then handed over the power to the people to later go and rest in my tent. I have no post to resign from like the presidents of other countries. I am not a prime minister or a president."

A day earlier, Kadafi had marshaled cheering supporters and convoys of trucks said to be headed for rebel territory. His foes boasted of sending 500 men down the coastal highway for a showdown in Tripoli, the capital.

Little of the conflicting claims and choreographed displays of control shed light on the true balance of power in the latest Middle Eastern uprising against autocratic rule. The Kadafi government's show of strength in and around Tripoli on Tuesday was for the benefit of foreign journalists on official tours of the capital, where the once seemingly invincible leader has hunkered down with loyalists and vowed to defeat the fierce challenge to his 41-year rule.

"I need Moammar Kadafi," said Abdul Salaam Abu Saifi, a 21-year-old student, as cars filled with supporters in the suburb of Qasr ben Ghashir honked horns and passengers pumped their fists in the air. "Those who say life is bad here are liars."

As Kadafi lieutenants cast a picture of calm and normality in areas still under the regime's control, opponents in the rebel-held east claimed that they had gained ground in several coastal cities and that they had repulsed government forces trying to take back at least three strategic venues that fell last week.

Even in the government-held towns around the capital where regime supporters took visiting journalists, frightened opponents whispered words of dissent when government minders were out of earshot, and the official pronouncements often had a hollow ring.

It was unimaginable, for instance, that the trucks reportedly headed to the eastern city of Benghazi with relief supplies could break through the rebel roadblocks along the huge stretches of coastal roadway. It was likewise impossible to verify rebel claims that they have organized an imminent surge toward Tripoli for final confrontation with Kadafi's forces.

About 500 young fighters, itching to join what they expect to be the final drive to topple Kadafi and take Tripoli, headed west, braving dangerous desert crossings to skirt the last government strongholds, rebel commanders in Benghazi reported.

As Kadafi foes and supporters weathered the tense impasse around Tripoli in the second week of the rebellion, the international community stepped up pressure on the defiant strongman with renewed calls for him to step down and for sanctions to punish his bloody crackdown.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned of the risk of protracted civil war in Libya but indicated that the Obama administration would approach any military action cautiously to avoid perceptions that the United States wants to "invade for oil." The White House is also aware of the Libyan rebels' desire to oust Kadafi without foreign help, she said.

In comments to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Clinton suggested that the administration is likely to continue to exercise restraint, even though officials have said military moves are under consideration.

Two U.S. amphibious assault ships were headed for the Mediterranean, as were 400 Marines, moves intended to keep U.S. forces poised to respond to any situation, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

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