x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Libyan opposition forces push towards Qaddafi’s Sirte stronghold

Libya's military 'showing the strain of the fighting' after more than a week of attacks by an international coalition, says Hillary Clinton.

A rebel fighter with a rocket launcher waits to refuel at a petrol station in Alaguila, as rebels moved towards the new front line on the road between Brega and Ras Lanuf.
A rebel fighter with a rocket launcher waits to refuel at a petrol station in Alaguila, as rebels moved towards the new front line on the road between Brega and Ras Lanuf.

Opposition fighters in Libya moved to within striking distance of the government's military heartland yesterday. Aided by international air and missile attacks on government forces, the rebels captured a string of coastal towns in the east and headed towards Sirte, the hometown of Libyan leader Col Moammar Qaddafi and a stronghold of his regime.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said that Libya's military was showing the strain of the fighting after more than a week of attacks by an international coalition. "We have a lot of diplomats and military leaders in Libya who are flipping, changing sides, defecting," she told CBS television yesterday. She was speaking ahead of a speech on Libya by the US president, Barack Obama, tonight.

The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, also speaking on television yesterday, said that part of the US consideration in intervening in Libya had been the situation in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia. "You had a potentially significantly destabilising event taking place in Libya that put at risk potentially the revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt," he said.

The rebel advances in Libya come as some of the Western countries that are involved in the military intervention are starting to feel the pressure for a quick solution. Italy yesterday said that it was working on a plan to end the fighting and let Col Qaddafi go into exile.

It aims to present the plan jointly with Germany at an international summit tomorrow in London. The British Foreign Office said that 35 countries as well as the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the Arab League and the African Union would be attending the summit that will discuss further action on Libya.

The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, was quoted in the daily La Republica yesterday as saying that the only solution was an end to the rule of Col Qaddafi.

"We cannot envisage a solution in which he would stay in power," he said.

Italy braced itself yesterday for what it fears will be a wave of African migrants making their way to Europe as they seek to escape the chaos in Libya. A boat carrying almost 300 mostly Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants arrived in Italy from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, for the first time since crisis started. Italy's coast guard said that a second boat, carrying 200 people, was also under way and other reports suggested that more boats were following.

A treaty between Italy and Libya to prevent migrants from setting out from the North African country was suspended at the start of the conflict there. Col Qaddafi has threatened to send "millions" of migrants to Europe in retaliation for the military intervention in his country. Libya was an Italian colony for several decades last century.

Rome has asked the European Union to help it tackle the refugee crisis. During the unrest in Tunisia in February, 5,000 refugees, mostly Tunisians, arrived on the small Italian island of Lampedusa in just a few days.

A call to end the violence in Libya, including coalition air strikes, came from an unexpected quarter yesterday. Pope Benedict XVI told pilgrims in Rome that he hopes for an immediate cessation of hostilities. "I appeal to international organisations and those with political and military responsibilities to immediately launch a dialogue to suspend the use of arms," he said.

Libya's government accused the international coalition that is intervening in the country of targeting civilians and of siding with the rebels. Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman in Tripoli, said early yesterday that coalition aircraft had hit Col Qaddafi's forces across the country overnight.

"We think this is murder, this is immoral, this is illegal, this is not the mandate of the Security Council," said Mr Ibrahim, referring to the UN mandate that authorises the intervention. He said that many civilians had been hit but this has not been confirmed independently.

Opposition fighters, buoyed by international support and the retaking of the strategic town of Ajdabiya on Saturday, pushed further towards the west and Tripoli yesterday. They recaptured a string of towns that they had to give up earlier this month as Col Qaddafi's forces launched a counteroffensive.

The rebels retook the towns of Brega, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, the furthest point in their advance from the east earlier this month. They said that pro-Qaddafi forces were fleeing towards his hometown of Sirte.

In western Libya, the rebels said that their situation improved in the town of Misurata after coalition air strikes on Saturday. French jets hit government aircraft and helicopters that were said to have been poised to take off and British forces struck government armour in and near Misurata. Eyewitnesses said that the town was quiet for the first time in days yesterday morning as artillery barrages and sniper fire ceased.