Monday, April 11, 2011

Libyan fighting goes on after peace bid fails

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – An African Union plan to halt Libya's civil war collapsed, and rebels said the increasingly bloody siege of the city of Misrata by Muammar Gaddafi's troops made talk of a ceasefire meaningless.
The Red Cross said it was opening a Tripoli office and would send a team to Misrata to help civilians trapped by fighting, but one of Gaddafi's ministers warned any aid operation involving foreign troops would be seen as a declaration of war.
Rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said after talks with the AU delegation in Benghazi in the rebel-held east on Monday:
"The African Union initiative does not include the departure of Gaddafi and his sons from the Libyan political scene, therefore it is outdated." Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif quickly dismissed the idea of his father stepping down.
"We want new blood, that's what we want for Libya's future. But to talk of (Gaddafi) leaving, that's truly ridiculous," he told French news channel BFM TV.
"If the West wants democracy, a new constitution, elections, well, we agree. We agree on this point but the West must help us to provide a propitious climate. But all these bombings, this support given to rebel groups, all that is counter-productive."
Libyan television said the "colonial and crusader aggressors" hit military and civilian sites in Al Jufrah district in central Libya on Monday.
Rebels in the coastal city of Misrata, under siege for six weeks, scorned reports that Gaddafi had accepted a ceasefire, saying they were fighting house-to-house battles with his forces, who fired rockets into the city.
Western leaders also rejected any deal that did not include Gaddafi's removal, and NATO refused to suspend its bombing of his forces unless there was a credible ceasefire.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a Brussels news briefing that Gaddafi's government had announced ceasefires in the past, but "they did not keep their promises."
"Any future proposal that does not include this, we cannot accept," he said, accusing Gaddafi of bombing, shelling and shooting civilians.
A resident of Misrata told Reuters there was heavy fighting on the eastern approaches and in the center.
Rebels told Reuters that Gaddafi's forces had intensified the assault, for the first time firing truck-mounted, Russian-made Grad rockets into the city, where conditions for civilians are said to be desperate.
Human Rights Watch accused Gaddafi's forces of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Misrata which violated international law. It said about 250 people had died.
At the front outside the eastern rebel-held town of Ajdabiyah, rebels buried the charred bodies of Gaddafi troops killed in air strikes and said they were advancing westwards.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is already deployed in Libya's rebel-held eastern territory, where it has supplied hospitals, distributed food and visited government soldiers captured during the conflict.
Speaking in Tripoli alongside a government spokesman, its regional head Jean-Michel Monod said his team had been officially invited to the capital.
"Now we will officially be here open for business," he told reporters. "Of course it was high time as a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organization that the ICRC would come here as well to conduct discussions with the authorities."
Libyan Social Affairs Minister Ibrahim Zarouk al-Sharif said some aid operations had been used as a cover to supply rebels.
"If humanitarian aid is brought through humanitarian organizations who specialize in this kind of work then we would welcome it. But if it comes with a military face then we won't accept it, it's basically a declaration of war and might lead to a much bigger conflict."
At talks in Luxembourg, Italy quarreled with other European Union governments on how to handle thousands of migrants fleeing the turmoil in Libya and elsewhere in north Africa, while the EU executive urged the bloc to do more for the refugees.
NATO attacks outside Ajdabiyah on Sunday helped break the biggest assault by Gaddafi's forces on the eastern front for at least a week. The town is the gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi 150 km (90 miles) north up the Mediterranean coast.
Opposition fighters have been overwhelmed by Gaddafi's firepower in western Libya, close to his base of Tripoli, but are increasingly using guerrilla tactics to weaken his hold.
Tripoli residents said there had been several attacks on army checkpoints and a police station in the last week and gunfire can be heard at night.
Gaddafi's former foreign minister Moussa Koussa, speaking in Britain where he fled last month, called on "everybody, all the parties, to work to avoid taking Libya into a civil war."
"This will lead to bloodshed and make Libya a new Somalia," he told the BBC. "More than that we refuse to divide Libya. The unity of Libya is essential to any solution and any settlement in Libya."
(Additional reporting by Alex Dziadosz in Ajdabiyah, Michael Georgy in Benghazi and Christian Lowe in Algiers; writing by Andrew Roche; editing by Michael Roddy)

African mediators head for Libya rebel talks

A team of African leaders was heading for the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Monday to try to sell a peace plan already accepted by Moamer Kadhafi's regime.

But the rebels were demanding that any ceasefire would require the withdrawal of government troops from the streets and freedom of expression.

"The people must be allowed to go into the streets to express their opinion and the soldiers must return to their barracks," Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a spokesman for the rebels' Transitional National Council, told AFP.

"If people are free to come out and demonstrate in Tripoli, then that's it. I imagine all of Libya will be liberated within moments."

South African President Jacob Zuma said from Tripoli late Sunday that Kadhafi had accepted an African Union peace plan designed to end the current conflict, before the delegation moved on to meet rebel leaders.

"We also in this communique are making a call on NATO to cease the bombings to allow and to give a ceasefire a chance," Zuma stressed.

Kadhafi's delegation had accepted the AU's proposals, details of which would be set out in a statement later, Zuma added.

But the South African leader will take no further part in the talks as he was leaving Libya to return home due to prior commitments.

The other members of the AU team -- the leaders of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, and Congo's Denis Sassou Nguesso, as well as Ugandan Foreign Minister Henry Oryem Okello, representing President Yoweri Museveni -- were travelling west to rebel-held Benghazi, 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) east of Tripoli.

The African mediators were welcomed to Tripoli by Kadhafi supporters holding the veteran Libyan leader's picture and waving the green flag of his regime.

Britain's former premier Tony Blair told CNN earlier Sunday that Kadhafi should not be underestimated.

"Whatever people say about being delusional and so forth, he's kept that grip there for 40 years," Blair said on the channel's "State of the Union" programme.

In Brussels, NATO said it had hit at least 26 regime tanks near the third city of Misrata, under siege by pro-Kadhafi forces, and the battleground crossroads town of Ajdabiya further east.

After destroying 14 tanks around Misrata early in the day, warplanes struck more tanks and anti-aircraft guns in the late afternoon, a NATO official said on condition of anonymity.

Near Ajdabiya, alliance aircraft blasted 11 tanks in the morning and struck one more tank and three military vehicles in the evening.

The alliance had already taken out 15 tanks near Misrata on Friday and Saturday.

"The pressure continues as NATO strikes go on day and night," the official said.

Earlier, the NATO operation's commander Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard said: "The situation in Ajdabiya, and Misrata in particular, is desperate for those Libyans who are being brutally shelled by the regime.

"To help protect these civilians we continue to strike these forces hard..." he said in a statement.

"We are hitting the regime logistics facilities as well as their heavy weapons because we know Kadhafi is finding it hard to sustain his attacks on civilians."

In Geneva, the international Red Cross expressed concern about several thousand foreign migrants stranded in Misrata.

The group was found living under tarpaulins and shelters by an International Committee of the Red Cross team that entered the city by sea for a day to evaluate medical conditions and aid needs, an ICRC spokeswoman said.

Attacks by government forces on Misrata have endangered civilians and targeted a medical clinic in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said Monday.

The group called on the government to allow regular access of humanitarian aid to the city by sea and land, and to permit safe passage for all civilians who wish to leave.

"The Libyan government?s near siege of Misrata has not prevented reports of serious abuses getting out," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"We?ve heard disturbing accounts of shelling and shooting at a clinic and in populated areas, killing civilians where no battle was raging."

According to Dr. Muhammad el-Fortia, who works at Misrata Hospital, they have recorded 257 people killed and 949 wounded since February 19. The wounded include 22 women and eight children, he said.

A second doctor confirmed the figure in the region of 250 dead over the past month, most of them civilians, and said: "The fighters know how to protect themselves, but the civilians are getting hurt."

No ceasefire without Kadhafi pullback: Libya rebels

Libyan rebels said Monday that any ceasefire would require the withdrawal of government troops from the streets and freedom of expression, as African mediators were due in their stronghold

"The people must be allowed to go into the streets to express their opinion and the soldiers must return to their barracks," Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a spokesman for the rebels' Transitional National Council, told AFP.
"If people are free to come out and demonstrate in Tripoli, then that's it. I imagine all of Libya will be liberated within moments."
He said high-level African Union mediators, who met government officials in the capital the day before, were expected to arrive in the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi within hours. He declined to give more details about their plans for security reasons.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Libya: more rebels killed in Nato air strikes

In a sign of the fragility of rebel forces, the bombing stopped an opposition attempt to regroup outside the oil town of Brega, which has changed hands repeatedly in the course of the fighting.
Instead, many rebels retreated instantly and civilian inhabitants of the next major town Ajdabiya began fleeing to the relative safety of Benghazi out of fear that government forces were advancing.
"Why did this happen?" said one fighter, called Mohammad Muftar. "The rebels were not threatening any civilians, they were not firing at the planes, why did this happen?"
The strike was the second in a week to have hit the wrong side. The previous error, which occurred close to Thursday's incident, killed 13 people.
Fighters said that captured tanks had been marked under an agreement with Nato to prevent friendly fire accidents, but to no avail. According to one rebel, up to seven were killed and others seriously wounded, including one teenaged boy who lost both legs. Others gave different figures.

Witnesses claimed the jets circled for half an hour before firing between two and four missiles. As they fled, rebels abandoned other tanks for fear of being struck again.
One doctor said that the allied strike had been followed immediately by an artillery bombardment by pro-Gaddafi troops in which one of his medical team was killed.
The mistake comes at a difficult time, with the alliance divided over how to proceed after the withdrawal from front-line attacks of the US and growing evidence to suggest the rebel forces are unlikely to win a war on their own, even with air cover.
The alliance has been criticised by rebel leaders for not doing enough to defend them, and particularly in the besieged city of Misurata, where another five people died in shelling on Wednesday and one more on Thursday, according to the opposition.
Thursday's incident, rather being seen as evidence for Nato's claims that attacking front line forces from the air carries a high risk of friendly fire and civilian casualties, caused even more complaints.
"This is a betrayal, what Nato have done," said Mustapha Abdul Rahman, who was wounded in the strike and was being treated in Benghazi's hospital last night. "We are not sure if the tanks were destroyed, we had to flee, we couldn't wait and see." A Nato statement said it was trying to confirm details of what had happened. "The fighting between Brega and Ajdabiya, where the strike occurred, has been fierce for several days. The situation is unclear and fluid with mechanised weapons travelling in all directions," it said.
A Nato spokesman denied Libyan government claims that its jets had also bombed Libya's largest oilfield.
Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, had blamed "British planes" for the deaths of three guards and injuries to other workers in the Sarir field.
But Lt Gen Charles Bouchard, the Canadian commander of the Nato operation, said: "We are aware that pro-Gaddafi forces have attacked this area in recent days. To try and blame it on Nato shows how desperate this regime is."
A rebel spokesman had already accused government armoured vehicles of attacking both Sarir and Messla, another important oilfield, following the rebels' announcement that they were exporting their first shipment of crude through the port of Tobruk

Monday, April 4, 2011

Libya: Saif Gaddafi offers to lead 'transition to democracy'

Saif Gaddafi, Col Gaddafi's son, is proposing to end the Libyan conflict with a deal that would see his father relinquish power for a transition to democracy, it is claimed. Under the proposal, Saif, one of Gaddafi's inner circle, would lead the transition to constitutional democracy, according to a diplomat with close ties to the Libyan government.
However, neither Col Gaddafi nor the rebels appear ready to accept such a proposal, the diplomat added.
The alleged proposal comes as Col Gaddafi despatched a trusted adviser to Greece for talks that could signal the Libyan leader’s readiness to stand down.
Abdulati al-Obeidi, who has emerged as the Libyan regime’s acting foreign minister after the defection to London last week of Moussa Koussa, was meeting George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, in Athens last night.
He is the first senior envoy sent by Col Gaddafi since the international coalition started to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. Greek officials said Mr Obeidi, who recently was said to be close to defection himself, was carrying a message from Col Gaddafi. . The trip raised the prospect that the Libyan leader would be willing to seek a ceasefire and to acknowledge international demands for his removal. Mr Papandreou’s office said he was meeting Mr Obeidi “at the request of the Libyan prime minister”, Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmudi.
Reports suggested that Mr Obeidi had travelled to Tunisia with Mr Koussa last week, but stopped short of fleeing to Britain with his boss. There is said to be a growing realisation within the Gaddafi regime that international isolation will inflict a grim toll on Tripoli.
Following the meeting, Dimitris Droutsas, the Greek foreign minister, said: "From the Libyan envoy's comments it appears that the regime is seeking a solution."
Mr Obeidi, who is a heavyweight in Col Gaddafi’s shrinking group of advisers, appears to believe that a package of reforms and transition to a new type of leadership, even a new leader, can be worked out.
Some Libyan officials privately acknowledge this would see the removal of Col Gaddafi – with internal exile in the desert one possible proposal. Last night it was reported that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the reformist son of the “Brother Leader”, had proposed that Libya could transfer to democracy under his stewardship.
Mr Obeidi said last week that he was working for a “mutual solution” between a regime clinging to power and the international position that Col Gaddafi’s survival is incompatible with Libya’s rehabilitation.
“We are trying to talk to the British, the French and the Americans to stop the killing of people,” he said. “We should concentrate on democracy and a constitution, which we are already doing.” British officials stressed that it was early days, and that the Libyan leader had already declared two ceasefires only to break them. A source added: “We will judge them on his actions, not their words. We are not getting too excited about someone flying to Greece.”
A Downing Street spokesman declined to comment, while a Foreign Office spokesman said: “It would be wrong to speculate.”
Diplomats remained sceptical last night that Mr Obeidi would be able to deliver a shift in Col Gaddafi’s grip on power. As far as his domestic audience is concerned, Col Gaddafi is determined to eliminate any challenge to his revolution. State television remains dominated by his rallying cry to clear out the “rats” in every street, alley and house.
“It may amount to something and it may amount to nothing,” said one diplomat. “The fact of the matter is that Libya has not offered a coherent position, but we look forward to something that could offer a route to discussions.”
A Greek foreign ministry spokesman said the regime had signalled its readiness to comply with the UN resolution on protecting civilians under certain conditions.