x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Qaddafi's forces push rebels back from Tripoli

As the Libyan civil war drags on longer than expected, with Qaddafi thwarting efforts to drive him out, separate diplomatic efforts to find a solution have intensified.

Spanish foreign minister Trinidad Jimenez, right, talks to Mahmoud Jibril, executive bureau chairman of the transitional national council in Libya, before their joint news conference at the foreign ministry in Madrid yesterday. Andrea Comas / Reuters
Spanish foreign minister Trinidad Jimenez, right, talks to Mahmoud Jibril, executive bureau chairman of the transitional national council in Libya, before their joint news conference at the foreign ministry in Madrid yesterday. Andrea Comas / Reuters

MISURATA // Libyan rebels said a fierce counter-attack by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi had checked their gains on a front line east of Tripoli yesterday.

A rebel spokesman in Zlitan, on the coast road 160 kilometres east of the capital, said pro-Qaddafi forces backed by tanks had surrounded rebels who had seized the nearby town of Souq al Thulatha the previous day.

The soldiers had flattened homes with tank shells, he said in an internet posting.

"The brigades are still terrorising the families, combing villages and neighbourhoods and spreading panic in the whole region," he said.

The rebels, who swiftly took much of eastern Libya after an uprising flared in February, have also taken casualties around the oil port of Brega, south of their stronghold, Benghazi.

They said they were trying to take the town from Colonel Qaddafi's troops.

State TV showed what it said were fresh pictures from Zlitan and Brega in an apparent bid to show the towns were still firmly in Tripoli's hands.

In Zlitan, dozens of Qaddafi supporters were shown chanting slogans of support.

Libya's rebels have asked France for extra arms to help them overrun Tripoli within "days". The request was made in Paris on Wednesday to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy by military leaders from the rebel-held city of Misurata, a member of their delegation said.

The rebel leader, Mahmud Jibril, meanwhile was expected to seek additional aid for their military campaign from Spain during talks in Madrid yesterday with the Spanish foreign minister Trinidad Jimenez.

As the war drags on longer than expected, with Colonel Qaddafi thwarting efforts to drive him out, separate diplomatic efforts to find a solution have intensified.

China said it would work with the African Union, which has proposed a plan that is seen as less hostile to the Libyan leader than a Western road map that insists on his stepping down.

President Hu Jintao told his visiting South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, that the Africans had played an important role in pushing a political solution.

"China greatly appreciates this and is willing to continue remaining in close touch and to co-ordinate closely with South Africa and the African Union on the Libya issue," Mr Hu said.

The United States has said that Colonel Qaddafi must quit, but whether he remained in Libya after that would be left up to the Libyan people to decide. Libya dismissed the idea, saying Colonel Qaddafi's departure after 41 years in power was not up for discussion.

While China did not use its veto in March to block a UN Security Council resolution that authorised the Nato bombing campaign against Libya, it then quickly condemned the strikes and has urged a compromise between the government and rebels.

Some analysts have said that Colonel Qaddafi is running short of fuel and food, which could stoke popular unrest ahead of Ramadan.

The state news agency JANA said officials met yesterday to ensure food supplies "reach consumers as soon as possible before the start of Ramadan".

It quoted the head of the Tripoli port as saying "cargoes carrying barley, wheat, bananas and other food supplies dock on a daily basis" at the port.

Little attention has been made to Libya's vast but sparsely populated Sahara interior, but yesterday's Wall Street Journal quoted rebels as saying they were making progress north towards the regional capital of Sabha in the heart of the country.

However, a hotel worker in the city, almost 800 kilometres from Tripoli, said: "Everything is fine in Sabha and the regions south of the city."

He said colleagues who had been south had seen no rebels there.

Libyans using the state-run cellphone network said they had been receiving text messages this week calling on them to go and fight in the western mountains, the front closest to Tripoli.

"The clock of action has struck. The time for cleansing has come. Today the western mountains will burn," ran a message sent yesterday.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse