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Rebels reject Libyan ex-premier's overture

The appeal for dialogue comes as Kadafi's forces strike at his foes in the east.

March 08, 2011|Borzou Daragahi

TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Mohamad Soueid is an unlikely revolutionary against the regime of Moammar Kadafi. Until a few weeks ago he was a high-ranking government official in the city of Misurata, the man in charge of overseeing the affairs of the foreigners who lived there.

But in the midst of the uprising that has torn Libya in half and established Misurata as one of two rebel strongholds in the country's west, Soueid has become a leader of an armed rebellion.

"We want democracy," he said in a telephone interview Monday from his besieged city of half a million people. "We want the end of Kadafi. We want the fall of the regime. We want justice. We want the end of corruption. Kadafi has left us no choice. Only war."

Soueid's comments came after former Libyan Prime Minister Jadallah Azzuz Talhi appealed for dialogue with government opponents during an appearance on state-controlled television. Talhi, who served as Libya's prime minister in the 1980s, hails from the eastern provinces, which include the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Tribal leaders in the rebel-controlled areas should "give a chance to national dialogue to resolve this crisis, to help stop the bloodshed, and not give a chance to foreigners to come and capture our country again," Talhi said, according to Reuters news agency.

The appeal came as security forces pounded rebel forces in the east and continued to lay siege to Misurata and Zawiya, two cities controlled by forces opposed to Kadafi.

Soueid and other rebels quickly dismissed the appeals for any dialogue while Kadafi remained in power.

"It's too late to make a dialogue," Soueid said. "Dialogue is dead. At the beginning, our movement was peaceful. Now they've killed our children. Now the only solution is violence. We are going to fight until the last man."

Many rebels doubt the sincerity of the Libyan regime's offer of dialogue. Kadafi and his deputies have described his opponents as drug-addled terrorists in league with Al Qaeda and the CIA and refuse to allow the possibility that they may be driven by the same clamors for democratic rule that have unseated governments in Tunisia and Egypt and are roiling the region.

Foreign Minister Musa Kusa on Monday took on a combative tone against the rebels, labeling them Islamic extremists supported by the West in a colonialist plot to divide and conquer Libya.

"Some militias, armed militia outlaws -- whether people believe it or not -- they are affiliated to Al Qaeda," he said. "I wonder why so many people don't focus on this issue. Al Qaeda is a fact. An Algerian man was arrested in Zawiya. Where do they come from? They come from Al Qaeda."

Soueid, like others contacted in rebel strongholds, painted a starkly different picture of the movement. He said youths initially led the movement in Misurata against the Kadafi regime but that eventually the struggle came to encompass all segments of society.

He said more than 92 people, civilians and fighters, had died in the violence and that 400 had been wounded in numerous government assaults on the city. Pro-Kadafi forces, he said, had taken control of all four major gates into Misurata, but the downtown remained under tight opposition control. He said the people lacked medicine and anesthesia to treat the wounded.

Everyone there is working to fend off Kadafi's advances, Soueid said.

"At the beginning we had fewer people. Now everyone has become an opponent because we cannot stand the brutality," Soueid said.

"At night we are organizing committees to protect the neighborhoods because we don't want looting. We are setting up barricades. Those who don't fight, help. They provide bandages. They secure food. They try to protect the homes where there are only women."

Soueid said he helped 5,000 Chinese, 1,000 Syrians and 900 Indians escape the city by sea.

Kadafi has at times dealt ruthlessly with his opponents once he gained the upper hand. In recent years, he has been as prone to buying off enemies with cash and official posts as to crushing them with violence.

His regime had been developing relationships with Western powers over the last eight years but now is under increasing international pressure to restrain its security forces.

The demand for Kadafi's ouster is perhaps the one issue that unites countries as varied as Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Iran.

A European Union delegation arrived Monday in Tripoli, the capital, in an attempt to defuse the crisis, which has left hundreds of Libyans dead and driven up global energy prices.

Japan has announced it will freeze Libyan assets and impose travel bans on Libyan officials, the Kyodo news service reported.

Italy, Libya's primary European business partner and former colonial master, has spoken with the opposition in the east about establishing a no-fly zone over the nation.

"Italy has already confirmed its amenability, on condition that there is a framework of international legitimacy," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Italian radio.

There was virtually no information Monday out of the rebel-controlled city of Zawiya, where the government had established armor positions at all entrances to the enclave and launched at least three tank assaults on the city center over the last 48 hours. Witnesses said they repelled the attacks.

World powers and U.S. politicians are considering whether to provide rebels opposed to Kadafi's rule with support and, if so, to what extent.

"We don't want foreign intervention," Soueid said, adding, "We would consider being given weapons."

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Sihem Hassaini contributed to this report.

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