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Kadafi forces poised to rout rebels in eastern cities

Tanks, trucks and troops deploy outside Ajdabiya, apparently ready for a full-scale battle.

March 17, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi | Los Angeles Times
  • Rebel fighters prepare to battle for the city of Ajdabiya.
Rebel fighters prepare to battle for the city of Ajdabiya. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — — Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's forces appear to be poised Thursday to crush rebels who have taken control of key eastern cities despite international condemnation that has yet to result in concrete actions.

Heavy deployments of Kadafi's forces were arrayed assertively on Ajdabiya's outskirts, though soldiers admitted they were facing resistance by pockets of rebels holed up in the city, according to a small group of journalists taken to the outskirts late Wednesday.

In an interview that appeared in the French daily Figaro on Thursday, Kadafi predicted heavy civilian casualties when his forces enter the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, but pinned any violence on his adversaries.

"These rebels are likely to use the townspeople as human shields," Kadafi was quoted as saying. "It is quite possible that these rebels kill civilians and then accuse the Libyan army."

Kadafi has frequently attempted to blame deaths caused by his own security forces on unspecified "gangs" or Al Qaeda militants.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe rushed to New York on Thursday to push for a U.N. Security Council vote to further tighten sanctions on Libya and pave the way for a possible no-fly zone over the country in an effort to stem Kadafi's advances.

"In view of the urgent situation in which the Libyan population is finding itself, in particular in Benghazi, Alain Juppe has decided to go to New York in order to secure the passing of this resolution as soon as possible," said a foreign ministry statement cited by Agence France-Presse. "Stopping the acts of violence against people is a priority issue for France."

France was the first country to recognize the interim rebel government in Benghazi as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was described as being "gravely concerned" about the escalation of the conflict in Libya in a press statement released Wednesday. A U.N. special envoy dispatched to Libya stressed the need for a firm and unambiguous commitment on the part of the Libyan government to cease hostilities immediately.

Kadafi's deputies have promised to use restraint against rebel positions and have offered an amnesty to any rebels who give themselves up. But outside Ajdabiya, there was no sign that Kadafi's forces were preparing for anything but a full-scale battle against the rebels.

Reporters there spotted miles of gasoline, food and water trucks in convoys leading up to the city. At least 1,000 troops could be seen waiting outside the city along with nearly a dozen tanks, flatbed tank transport trucks and mobile artillery vehicles and and rocket launchers.

CNN's Nic Robertson, who was on the trip, said in an interview that the soldiers were in good spirits, firing their weapons into the air. He described what he saw as "a massive army that is supplied and capable of bearing down" on rebel-held positions in Ajdabiyah and Benghazi.

The reporters also spotted a possible sign that Kadafi was using air power to target rebel positions. At the airport in Kadafi's stronghold of Surt, a fighter jet took off just as journalists landed.

Relatives struggled to glean information from the rebel-controlled city of Misurata, the sole remaining rebel-controlled city in the country's west. Authorities have cut off telephone lines to the city and barred journalists from entering. Al Jazeera television reported that Kadafi's forces had arrayed warships outside the port city of 600,000 as they tightened a siege on the city.

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