x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Libyan rebels claim two Qaddafi aircraft shot down

As Libya's state television claimed major military gains by Qaddafi's forces, France sent its foreign minister to the UN to try to get a draft resolution authorising action in Libya passed.

TOBRUK // Libyan rebels said today they had shot down two warplanes trying to bomb their eastern bastion Benghazi, as state television claimed major military gains by the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces.

With battles raging in the east and west, France scrambled its foreign minister, Alain Juppe, to the UN Security Council in a bid to get a draft resolution authorising action in Libya passed.

Libyan television said Colonel Qaddafi's troops were on the outskirts of Benghazi, the major Mediterranean city in the east and seat of the opposition trying to unseat Colonel Qaddafi.

"The town of Zuwaytinah is under control (of loyalists) and armed forces are on the outskirts of Benghazi," Allibya television said. Zuwaytinah is about 150 kilometres (93 miles) south of Benghazi.

However, a rebel spokesman said the situation was "calm" in the city of more than a million people.

"The Qaddafi forces tried to carry out an air raid on the city but our anti-aircraft defences repulsed the offensive and two planes were shot down," a the spokesman told AFP, reached by telephone.

However, a doctor in the city said only one plane was shot down.

"The situation is calm although some planes tried to bomb rebel positions in the city. The rebels shot down one of their planes [and it fell] in the suburbs," the doctor said.

"We are gathered in the [central] square outside the courthouse and morale is high," said the doctor, who spoke by telephone.

Libyan television also said loyalists had overrun the rebel bastion of Misrata, the country's third city located 200 kilometres east of Tripoli, a day after Colonel Qaddafi promised a "decisive battle" there.

"The armed forces are in control of the city of Misrata. It is now being purged of the terrorist gangs," Allibya television said.

That claim was denied by a rebel spokesman in the city reached by telephone, who said insurgents remained in command.

"We still control the city, even its outskirts. Qaddafi is mobilising his forces a few kilometres away," the spokesman said.

"We hear sporadic gunfire on the outskirts of the city, but that's all."

The spokesman also reported that 18 people, including three civilians, were "martyred" in fierce fighting on Wednesday. "We inflicted huge losses to the Qaddafi forces, including 60 people killed," he added.

On Tuesday, state television said the army would soon move against Benghazi, and on Wednesday, Colonel Qaddafi's son Saif al Islam predicted that everything would be over in 48 hours.

In an interview with Russia Today television broadcast late Wednesday, Colonel Qaddafi said Benghazi will fall to the Tripoli government "without our use of military force" as local residents will themselves chase out the "bandits."

"As you see, all are on our side except the bandits. People are constantly appealing to us for help and to rescue them from the bandits," he said in the interview.

"It is Benghazi that particularly begs for help. While it is true that the bandits have occupied buildings, also residential ones, for the purposes of having a human shield for themselves, we believe Benghazi can deal with them without our use of military force."

With fears growing of a massacre of the lightly-armed rebels being pushed back by Colonel Qaddafi's superior air power and artillery, the world remained divided today over what course to take.

A statement by Mr Juppe's office said France, Britain and Lebanon have tabled a draft UN resolution "broadening the scope of sanctions and opening the path for using the necessary means to stop Qaddafi's offensive."

"Given the urgency that the Libyan population is faced with, notably in Benghazi, Alain Juppe has decided to go to New York to obtain, as quickly as possible, a vote on the resolution," the statement said.

It did not detail military means and did not mention a no-fly zone that has previously been called for. Mr Juppe himself has said that the idea of a no-fly zone has now been overtaken by events.

The United States has apparently toughened its position, joining in the pressure for a Security Council vote today on a no-fly zone to halt Colonel Qaddafi's attacks.

US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said that action might have to "go beyond a no-fly zone at this point, as the situation on the ground has evolved, and as a no-fly zone has inherent limitations in terms of protection of civilians at immediate risk."

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in a letter to the leaders of the other countries on the 15-nation council, said on Wednesday that: "Together, we can save the martyred people of Libya. It is now a matter of days, if not hours."

Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged the Security Council to agree a resolution on Thursday, warning that "time is running out."

But the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, whose country currently sits on the Security Council and is a key NATO member, said on Wednesday "we have no wish to and we cannot take sides in a north African civil war."

A no-fly zone would amount to military action and ground forces could be needed as a follow up if it failed.

"We do not wish to start down a path which would eventually lead to German soldiers taking part in a war in Libya," Mr Westerwelle said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has requested more information from Arab states on how a no-fly zone would be policed.

China, which like Russia wields a veto on the Security Council, has also expressed reservations about any intervention.

In New York, the deputy Libyan UN ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, warned on Wednesday that "in the coming hours we will see a real genocide if the international community does not act quickly."

Mr Dabbashi, who defected early on from Colonel Qaddafi's regime, said "about five" Arab states were ready to help police the no-fly zone if it were adopted.