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Libyan rebels show signs of life

Aided by Western airstrikes, the opposition appears to regain some momentum against Moammar Kadafi's forces.

March 24, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyan rebel fighters near the eastern city of Ajdabiyah shout as they burn clothes of soldiers loyal to Moammar Kadafi. With help from the coalition forces' airstrikes, the rebels have been able to regain momentum in their fight against the government.
Libyan rebel fighters near the eastern city of Ajdabiyah shout as they burn… (Reuters )

Reporting from Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya — After losing ground to government forces for weeks, Libyan rebels based in the eastern city of Benghazi showed signs Thursday of regaining the momentum against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, whose brutal crackdown on protesters opposed to his four-decade rule has sparked civil warfare.

Rebel spokesman Col. Ahmed Omar Bani said some government fighters in the front-line city of Ajdabiya had lost contact with their commanders and were negotiating to withdraw and head west toward government-controlled territory.

The talks hinge on rebel demands that the government forces surrender their heavy weaponry, according to an opposition political spokesman in Benghazi. Bani appealed to other nations for antitank weapons and other heavy artillery to help the lightly armed volunteer army battle Kadafi's troops.

Photos: U.S. and allies strike Libya targets from air and sea

Meanwhile, Western-led airstrikes pounded the Libyan capital of Tripoli and other targets Thursday morning and evening. Claims of civilian casualties followed, accusations that could weaken support for the U.N.-sanctioned mission aimed at protecting Libyans from the military might of Kadafi.

Explosions and barrages of artillery fire shook Tripoli and its suburbs. Kadafi loyalists said a large number of civilian casualties occurred, and they showed the Reuters news agency bodies they said were those of civilian and military victims in the Tajoura district.

But a group of journalists traveling to a hospital in Tajoura to independently verify casualty claims was stopped and detained for 90 minutes.

A Thursday evening burial for alleged victims of the airstrikes included a dozen bodies and protesters chanting slogans in support of Kadafi. But no grieving relatives attended, nor were there portraits of the deceased or information about who they were or where and how they died.

Navy Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, said U.S. and allied aircraft had carried out 130 sorties over the previous 24 hours, including 49 airstrikes on targets near Tripoli and Ajdabiya, among others. Roughly half the sorties were flown by American aircraft, he said.

So far, Libyan authorities have been unable to substantiate civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure caused by the bombings. A Libyan official said the targets of the airstrikes in and around the capital have included a small power station and a telecommunications tower in Tajoura.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Al Arabiya news that the Western-led alliance, empowered by a United Nations Security Council resolution to establish a no-fly zone, has succeeded in destroying most of Libya's air defenses. The Agence France-Presse news agency reported that French fighters destroyed a Libyan warplane on the ground after it flew in violation of the no-fly zone near Misurata, the most significant rebel-controlled stronghold in western Libya.

Residents of the city, Libya's third-largest, reported relative calm after days of shelling and gunfire by Kadafi's forces. "People are imprisoned in their houses because of the snipers," said a pharmacist, speaking via Internet voice connection.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused Libya of failing to abide by the terms of the Security Council resolution passed a week ago that called for an immediate end to hostilities.

A Libyan government spokesman challenged Ban's comments. "What evidence does he have that Libya is not complying?" asked Khaled Kaim, a Foreign Ministry official. "Has he sent the observers yet? What about other parties violating the cease-fire?"

Gortney said attacks by Kadafi's troops continued in Ajdabiya, Misurata and Zintan.

Spokesmen for the Libyan opposition leadership in Benghazi said allied air attacks had targeted government tanks and rocket batteries overnight in or near Ajdabiya, 95 miles south of the rebel capital. They said as many as three tanks had been destroyed, but that could not be confirmed because reporters have been unable to reach the city.

Rebel fighters and forces loyal to Kadafi have battled for Ajdabiya for the last week, with government forces pounding residential neighborhoods with tank and rocket fire. Rebels say Kadafi's men are running low on fuel, ammunition and food because the allied aircraft have cut supply lines to the Kadafi stronghold of Surt, to the west. Gortney said allied strikes hit Kadafi's ground forces outside Ajdabiya, as well as a command facility and missile site near Tripoli and an ammunition dump near Misurata.

Rebel fighters remained spread out along the coastal highway near Ajdabiya and among sand dunes in the desert, vulnerable to rocket attacks. The rebels claim to control much of central Ajdabiya, but repeated forays have not dislodged Kadafi fighters dug in at two entrances to the strategic city of 120,000.

Most residents of Ajdabiya have fled, but those who remain are huddled in their homes without electricity, water or cooking gas. Those services have been cut by government forces, the rebels say.

Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman in Benghazi, said rebels controlled 80% of Ajdabiya. But he said that without airstrikes to destroy the heavy weapons of Kadafi's fighters, rebels would not be able to drive the loyalists out.

Though the airstrikes have forced Kadafi away from Benghazi and have kept his aircraft grounded, there are few other signs the no-fly campaign has persuaded Libyan units to stop their attacks.

"No one in the U.S. military is underestimating the challenge here," Gortney said.

Photos: U.S. and allies strike Libya targets from air and sea

Daragahi reported from Tripoli and Zucchino from Benghazi. Times staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.

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