Outgunned Libyan rebels scatter, world mulls sending arms
Loyalist forces overran the Libyan oil town of Ras Lanuf on Wednesday, scattering outgunned rebels as world powers debated arming the rag-tag band of fighters seeking to oust Moamer Kadhafi.
AFP reporters quoting rebel fighters said Kadhafi's troops swept through Ras Lanuf, strategic for its oil refinery, blazing away with tanks and heavy artillery fire soon after dawn.
Panicked rebels fled in their hundreds through Uqayla, 20 kilometres (12 miles) east of Ras Lanuf, calling for coalition air strikes on Kadhafi's forces.
"We want the French to bomb the (Kadhafi) soldiers," said fighter Ali Atia al-Faturi, as the sound of shelling and gunfire grew louder. Hundreds of cars and pickup trucks sped from Uqayla towards Brega, the next main town, some 240 kilometres (150 miles) south of the rebel stronghold Benghazi.
"We are facing a big problem. We are pulling back," said another one fighter, Salama Dadida.
"Kadhafi's troops are firing rockets and tank shells," he said.
On Tuesday the rebels came within 100 km of Sirte, the strongman's hometown, before encountering fierce resistance which reversed an advance launched when Britain, France and the United States started UN-mandated air strikes on March 19.
Under barrages of artillery fire, rebel fighters stampeded down the coastal road in clouds of dust, many fleeing aboard pickup trucks.
They huddled down in Ras Lanuf overnight but soon after dawn Kadhafi's forces launched their onslaught.
Paris has not ruled out arming the rebels and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said at a London conference on Tuesday that France is prepared to hold discussions on the issue.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday said Moscow believed that foreign powers did not have the right to arm the rebels under the mandate approved by the UN Security Council.
"Recently, the French foreign minister said France was prepared to discuss with its coalition partners the supply of arms for the Libyan opposition," Lavrov told reporters in reference to Tuesday's London conference on the crisis.
"Immediately thereafter, the NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen declared that the operation in Libya was being staged to protect the population and not to arm it -- and here, we completely agree with the NATO Secretary General."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that although UN sanctions prohibit the delivery of arms to Libya, the ban no longer applies.
"It is our interpretation that (UN Security Council resolution) 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition on arms to anyone in Libya, so that there could be a legitimate transfer of arms if a country should choose to do that," she said.
A spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council, Mustafa Ghuriani, told reporters in the Benghazi "it would be naive to think we are not arming ourselves" to match the weaponry deployed by Kadhafi loyalists.
But he declined to confirm or deny that France and the United States were offering to supply arms, saying only that unspecified "friendly nations" were backing the rebels.
NATO's top commander revealed that there was no alliance representative on the ground in Libya to work with rebel forces and that he had no orders to supply the opposition with weapons.
Admiral James Stavridis also said the alliance was working to get a clearer picture of the opposition, amid intelligence reports showing "flickers" of a possible Al-Qaeda presence.
US President Barack Obama, who has laid out a moral imperative for protecting Libyan civilians caught in the battle, also said he did not rule out arming the rebels.
"I'm not ruling it out. But I'm also not ruling it in. We're still making an assessment partly about what Kadhafi's forces are going to be doing," Obama said.
Obama said the "noose" was tightening around the Libyan strongman, but noted that Kadhafi did not appear to be seeking to negotiate an exit from Libya yet, despite the bombardment of his forces.
But he added he believed Kadhafi would eventually quit.
"Our expectation is that as we continue to apply steady pressure, not only militarily but also through these other means, that Kadhafi will ultimately step down," he said.
Loud explosions rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli late Tuesday close to Kadhafi's tightly guarded residence and military targets in the suburb of Tajura were also hit, an AFP correspondent reported.
Western powers have called for Kadhafi to go, angering the eccentric leader, who issued a defiant letter likening the NATO-led strikes to the military campaigns launched by Adolf Hitler during World War II.
"Stop your barbaric, unjust offensive on Libya," he said in the letter. "Leave Libya for the Libyans. You are committing genocide against a peaceful people and a developing nation."
But opening the London talks, Cameron said the air strikes were helping to protect civilians from "murderous attacks" by Kadhafi's forces especially in the western rebel-held town of Misrata.
"Kadhafi is using snipers to shoot them down and let them bleed to death in the street," Cameron told the conference.
Tanks and troops loyal to Kadhafi stormed Misrata on Tuesday, firing shells as they attacked Libya's third city, 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli, a rebel spokesman said. He warned of a "massacre" ahead.
A doctor in the city said 142 people had been killed and 1,400 wounded since March 18.
More than 40 nations and organisations gathered in London agreed to create a contact group to map out a future for Libya and to meet again as soon as possible in the Arab state of Qatar.
A rebel envoy, Mahmud Jibril, met on the sidelines with western foreign ministers.
"A consensus has been reached, participants at the meeting unanimously said that Kadhafi must leave the country," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.
Cameron and Clinton said the allied air strikes would go on until the Libyan leader met UN demands for a ceasefire.
© 2011 AFP