Libya rebels in retreat as West ponders action
Relentless pounding by Moamer Kadhafi's forces sent rebels fleeing a key oil hub on Thursday and a town near Tripoli was recaptured, as the Red Cross warned of escalating conflict in Libya and called it civil war.
As loyalists wrested back the initiative on the battlefield, a source close to Nicolas Sarkozy said the French president will propose "targeted air strikes" in Libya.
And NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who said "time is of the essence," affirmed that the alliance stands ready to act if there is a clear mandate.
With its fighters in retreat, the opposition appealed to Western powers meeting in Brussels to follow the lead of France, which officially recognised their national council on Thursday as Libya's "legitimate representative."
That brought a quick reaction from Tripoli, which suggested Paris was acting stupidly and said it could sever diplomatic relations.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was moving to close the official Libyan embassy in Washington.
"We are suspending our relationships with the existing Libyan embassy. So we expect them to end operating as the embassy of Libya," she told US lawmakers.
Targeted by rocket fire, rebels fled from Ras Lanuf, a strategic coastal oil town in eastern Libya they had captured last Friday, AFP reporters said.
A hospital official in Brega, about 85 kilometres (52 miles) east up the coast, said "we have four dead and 35 wounded, but there's still many more coming."
There were scenes of chaos at Brega hospital, where some of the bodies and wounded from Ras Lanuf were being taken. The more serious cases were transferred to Ajdabiya, the next town further east into rebel-held territory on the coast.
Hospital manager Mohammed Wanis said scores had been wounded but that not all the casualties were brought to Brega. "We expect to find more bodies," he said.
Medics say 400 people have died and 2,000 more been injured in eastern Libya since February 17.
With the mounting casualties, International Committee of the Red Cross president Jakob Kellenberger said he was bracing for an escalation of the conflict in Libya.
"We have to prepare for a further intensification of the fighting," he said in Geneva, adding that "I have no problem with the term civil war" to describe the conflict.
On the battlefield, rebel vehicles streamed eastward from Ras Lanuf after hours of heavy shelling and rocket attacks that swept from its western outskirts to the east.
Other groups of rebels appeared to stay in town, but dejected fighters in the exodus said they had been defeated as rockets exploded and there was at least one air strike.
"We've been defeated. They are shelling and we are running away. That means that they're taking Ras Lanuf," said a rebel fighter, dressed in military fatigues who gave his name as Osama.
At least four rockets struck the centre of Ras Lanuf, prompting medics to evacuate the hospital, pack patients into ambulances and speed away.
"They're getting too close. Some of us are still there, but a lot of us are pulling out. They're getting too close," shouted one rebel.
In the west, an intense battle for control of Zawiyah, the site of major oil installations 50 kilometres west of Tripoli, ended in victory for Kadhafi's forces on Wednesday night, sources said on Thursday.
"The town is now under the army's control," said a resident by telephone.
"The fighting ended last night. Today the situation is calm. I'm taking the opportunity to leave the town with my family," he added.
Rebels overran Zawiyah soon after a popular uprising erupted against Kadhafi on February 15, and the city had been under assault for several days by artillery and tanks.
Despite the loss of Zawiyah, a rebel in the mountainous Jabal al-Gharbi region some 90 kilometres to the south said "revolutionaries control several towns" in that area, including Zintan, which was the site of earlier fighting.
"We tried to support the revolutionaries in Zawiyah, but Kadhafi forces blocked the road at the foot of the mountains," said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Even so, we managed to kill dozens of soldiers," he added, a claim that could not be independently verified.
Three BBC journalists who tried to reach Zawiyah earlier this week were "detained and beaten" before being subjected to a mock execution, the broadcaster said.
"This is yet another example of the horrific crimes being committed in Libya," a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
In related news, a reporter for Britain's The Guardian and one from Brazil's O Estado de Sao Paulo newspapers were arrested in Libya. There was no immediate news of their situation.
In Brussels, NATO and the European Union were holding a series of meetings on Thursday and Friday to ponder military and economic options against Kadhafi.
The meetings of defence ministers, foreign ministers and prime ministers or presidents will shape the prospects for military intervention via a no-fly zone, humanitarian aid and economic props.
A source close to Sarkozy, who asked not to be named, said the French president will propose "striking an extremely limited number of points which are the source of the most deadly operations" by Kadhafi loyalists.
The sites being considered are Kadhafi's Bab al-Azizia command headquarters in Tripoli, a military air base in Sirte, east of Tripoli and another in Sebha in the south, the source added.
The president's office declined to confirm the claim when contacted by AFP.
France has seized the initiative in pressure against Kadhafi and has been working with Britain to lobby for a United Nations Security Council imprimatur for a no-fly zone.
The United States wants any military action conducted under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with Arab regional backing seen as essential.
And in Washington, the director of US national intelligence, James Clapper, said "the Libyan air defence structure on the ground, radar and surface-to-air missiles, is quite substantial."
But NATO's Rasmussen said that "if there is a demonstrable need, if we have a clear mandate and strong regional support, we stand ready to help."
The rebel national council, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a grouping of Muslim countries, have already called for a no-fly zone.
The alliance has stepped up surveillance of Libya's air space with radar-equipped aircraft, Rasmussen said.
"It does not mean we are deciding to consider carrying out specific operational steps today, but it does mean we are watching what the Libyan regime does to its people very closely indeed."
In other developments, Libyan television said three Dutch soldiers captured at the end of February in a botched attempt to evacuate two civilians by navy helicopter are to be freed.
Elsewhere in the volatile Middle East, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh bowed to pressure after a month of violent protests, but his pledge to devolve power to parliament was swiftly rejected as too late by the opposition.
World oil prices fell back after spiking sharply higher on Middle East tensions on Wednesday.
New York's main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in April, dropped 32 cents to $104.06 a barrel.
Brent North Sea crude for April shed 51 cents to $115.43.
© 2011 AFP