11:30am

Thu March 3, 2011
Africa

Libyan Rebels Holding The Line In Battleground City

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:18 am

President Obama issued his toughest warning yet to Libya's embattled regime on Thursday.

"The violence must stop," the President said . "Moammar Gadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave."

Speaking at a Washington, D.C., news conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama said he's approved the use of U.S. military aircraft to help transport refugees fleeing Libya and hinted that using force in support of rebels is among "a whole range of options, military and non-military" that are being discussed.

"I don't want us hamstrung," he said. "I want us to be making our decisions based on what's going to be best for the Libyan people in consultation with the international community."

Rebels Bulking Up

The president's remarks come as Libyan rebels controlling the port of Brega bolstered their defenses around a strategic oil installation a day after rebuffing a major counteroffensive by forces loyal to Gadhafi.

The ragtag force of rebels, made up of mutinous army units and partisans, fanned out in pickup trucks armed with machine guns and rocket launchers to beef up positions around Brega. They said they need to regroup, restock, rearm and dig in defensively so that the city cannot be retaken.

"The rebels have managed to push out to another village just beyond Brega, and they're holding that line for now," NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported.

She said that while government warplanes launched a new airstrike on the town Thursday morning, there appeared to be no pro-Gadhafi forces left after an all-out push to retake the town Wednesday.

Brega is the site of the country's second-largest petroleum and natural gas facility and has been under opposition control since last week. Oil production in Libya — a key source of light, sweet crude for refining into diesel fuel — has dropped precipitously since the revolt began Feb. 15.

In the battle for Brega, the rebels captured at least three teenagers who said they were from Niger, bolstering opposition claims that Gadhafi was hiring foreign mercenaries to fight against them.

Garcia-Navarro said the captives, one of whom appeared to be as young as 13 or 14, were paraded in front of a crowd of people Thursday. "The crowd here was extremely angry when they saw them," she said. "One of them got slapped around."

The teens "said they had been put on planes and given weapons to fight the pro-democracy rebels. ... They said that they had been promised money and that everything would be fine," she said.

Gadhafi is "crazy," Faraz Lashrush, a member of Libya's national rugby team and now a rebel fighter, told NPR.

"He's using children, you know ... using young people, he's bringing people from Africa to kill his own people," he said.

In the nearby opposition-held town of Ajdabiya, rebel fighters girded against any further attempts by government forces to retake control of the area. They reinforced the western gate with a tank, four rocket launchers and four truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns after the city was targeted by government warplanes Wednesday.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, three of at least a dozen fighters killed Wednesday were buried. Hundreds of mourners chanted "Down with Gadhafi" as they laid the men in the ground.

"Our message to Gadhafi is we are coming and we will make Libya free," a man in the crowd, Sami Mosur, told The Associated Press. "He is a criminal. We are coming to him from Benghazi. We are coming from everywhere. He is a killer."

International Court Vows To Investigate

The fighting at Brega halted for now the regime's first counteroffensive on the opposition-held eastern half of the country. It also underlined the deadlock that Libya appears to have fallen into more than two weeks into its upheaval.

Gadhafi's forces seem unable to bring significant strength to dislodge rebels from the territory they hold. But the opposition does not have the capability to go on the offense against the Libyan leader's strongholds in the west, including Tripoli.

The relative lull Thursday came as the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court promised to investigate Gadhafi and his inner circle, including some of his sons, for possible crimes against humanity in the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.

The prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said there would be "no impunity in Libya."

Moreno-Ocampo said Gadhafi's forces are alleged to have attacked peaceful demonstrators in several towns and cities. He said the court was using the opportunity "to put them on notice: If forces under their command commit crimes, they could be criminally responsible."

Moreno-Ocampo also warned that leaders of the Libyan opposition, who have seized weapons from the country's military, could be investigated if allegations were raised against them.

"No one has the authority to attack and massacre civilians," he said.

'Tents As Far As The Eye Can See'

As Libya edged closer to a full-fledged civil war, tens of thousands of people continued to pour across the borders into neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said that more than 180,000 people have reached the two borders. More than 77,300 have crossed east into Egypt, most of them Egyptians. A similar number have fled west into Tunisia, she said, but 30,000 were stuck at the border.

At one refugee camp on the Tunisian border, as many as 15,000 people were being temporarily housed, NPR's David Greene reported.

"The tents spread out as far as the eye can see," Greene said. "It doesn't seem like a situation of desperation right now, but U.N. officials say it could easily become that if the numbers keep growing."

In Geneva, U.S. Ambassador Betty King said the United States is giving $12 million to help with evacuations, and the U.N. has pledged $5 million to kick-start emergency efforts to help people fleeing the violence.

Britain and France both began airlifts Wednesday to help Egyptians stranded on the Libyan-Tunisian border get back home. The British planes, departing from the Tunisian city of Djerba, will help evacuate up to 8,800 Egyptian migrants to Cairo, Prime Minister David Cameron said.

Seeking to control the flow of people into Italy, Rome announced Thursday that it has decided to set up a refugee camp on the Tunisian border and may send in planes to airlift Egyptians to Cairo. Since the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East began, thousands of migrants have arrived by boat in Italy, a major trade partner and one-time colonial master of Libya.

"We have a Plan B ready to handle an influx of migrants should they arrive," Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said.

Doubts On No-Fly Zone Over Libya

Libyan opposition leaders have been pleading with foreign powers to launch air strikes against Gadhafi's forces as the U.S. and other nations debate whether to impose a no-fly zone over the country.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Thursday that foreign military intervention in Libya would be counterproductive and called instead for additional sanctions.

Speaking with reporters at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Bratislava, Slovakia, Westerwelle said Germany's view is that military intervention "would be very counterproductive." He said it's crucial that any decision to impose a no-fly zone be discussed at the United Nations.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to play down the idea of a no-fly zone Wednesday, saying it would involve more than just enforcing a quarantine of Libyan airspace.

"Let's just call a spade a spade: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses," Gates said. He added that the operation would require more warplanes than are on a single U.S. aircraft carrier.

So far, the uprising in Libya has sent world oil prices spiking to the highest levels in more than two years, above $100 per barrel. Libyan crude production has dropped from 1.6 million barrels per day — nearly 2 percent of world consumption — to as few as 600,000 barrels per day.

With reporting from Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Brega, Libya; David Greene in Tunisia; Sylvia Poggioli in Rome; and Teri Schultz in Brussels, Belgium. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.