Libyan rebels fight back, West divided

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Libyan rebels appealed for arms as they Friday sent fighters into battle against Moamer Kadhafi's advancing forces, as France and Britain urged targeted strikes in the oil-rich country.

Fighting in Ras Lanuf, a key oil hub in eastern Libya now the frontline in a bloody uprising against Kadhafi, flared again Friday after a fierce battle the day before, rebels said.

Rebel fighters delayed journalists from heading towards the area from the town of Ajdabiya, so it was unclear how far Kadhafi's men had pushed east along the coast.

"We don't know exactly what is happening in Ras Lanuf, but we've heard there is still fighting," said Salem Abdulrahman, a bearded young fighter in fatigues and a keffiya scarf, driving a pick-up carrying an anti-aircraft gun.

"So we're going up there. We're going to fight, and we're going to win," he declared, as cars and pick-ups ferried fighters to the front, hoping to stop Kadhafi consolidating a hold on the town and its key oil facilities.

An AFP reporter saw about two dozen trucks heading towards Ras Lanuf after rebels finally allowed journalists to leave Ajdabiya, initially restricting their access for "security reasons."

"We didn't get any orders to come up, but we're coming anyway. There are some of Kadhafi's guys in Ras Lanuf and we hope to get them out," said Saleh Massoud, in a truck of rebels with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back.

One rebel commander claimed his troops had already driven the army from Ras Lanuf, but a medic in contact with fighters on the ground said they were outgunned there and down to isolated pockets of resistance.

"At the moment it's 10 dead and dozens injured from Thursday's fighting, and that's likely to rise significantly. We believe there are many more bodies in the area," Doctor Salem Langhi told AFP from the front line town of Brega.

"Ambulances have not been allowed to go there to Ras Lanuf; the army is blocking the road," he said, referring to Kadhafi loyalists, which shelled the town on Thursday and drove off rebels who overran it a week ago.

"We have been told by the rebel fighters that there are still pockets of resistance in Ras Lanuf, and there is still some fighting, but as of now the army is in control of the area," Langhi said.

State television said Thursday that loyalists had "purged" Ras Lanuf. AFP journalists in the town saw rebel forces in full retreat and army tanks advancing five kilometres (three miles) east of the city.

Late Thursday, Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam said victory was in sight against the rebels fighting his father's regime.

"We're coming," Seif told a meeting of young supporters, referring to the advance of government forces towards the eastern rebel bastion of Benghazi, Libya's second city.

Medics say 400 people have died and 2,000 more been wounded in eastern Libya since February 17.

And the United Nations said more than 250,000 people had now fled the fighting in Libya since the revolt against Kadhafi started.

Kadhafi's forces on Wednesday captured Zawiyah, the site of major oil installations 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Tripoli, using artillery and tanks to drive the rebels from the city after several days' fighting.

With its fighters in retreat, the opposition appealed to the international community to intervene.

"The Libyans are being cleansed by Kadhafi's air force," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of Libya's rebel national Council, told the BBC World Service.

"We asked for a no-fly zone to be imposed from day one," he added.

"We also want a sea embargo and we urgently need some arms and we also need humanitarian assistance and medicines to be sent to the cities besieged by Kadhafi troops."

The appeal came as Western powers on Friday headed into crisis talks in Brussels Friday divided over how best to address the crisis in Libya.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said ahead of the EU summit that France and Britain favour targeted strikes in Libya in case Kadhafi uses chemical weapons or air strikes against his people.

Sarkozy said Paris had "many reservations" on military or NATO intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs."

But he and British Prime Minister David Cameron were "ready on condition that the UN wishes, that the Arab League accepts and the Libyan opposition agrees, for targeted actions if Mr Kadhafi uses chemical weapons or air strikes against peaceful citizens."

Britain and France have a draft resolution in hand to put to the United Nations Security Council for an air exclusion zone over the oil-rich country. But the council remains split on the issue and even allies Germany and Italy have sounded words of warning.

At two-day NATO defence ministers' talks that began Thursday, the alliance agreed to send more ships towards Libya's coast but it delayed any decision on imposing a no-fly zone, saying clear UN approval for military action was needed first.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that proposals for a no-fly zone over Libya would be presented to NATO next Tuesday.

But she stressed that any final decision had to be taken by the United Nations. Clinton will travel to the Middle East next week and meet senior anti-Kadhafi figures.

The head of French oil giant Total said in Paris on Friday that unrest in Libya has almost wiped out production in its key oil sector, slashing output by 1.4 million barrels a day to under 300,000.

"Oil production in Libya must have fallen to between 200,000 and 300,000 barrels a day maximum," the chief executive of Total, Christophe de Margerie, told reporters.

"There are about 1.4 million barrels a day less" than normal, since the start on February 15 of the uprising.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, oil kingpin Saudi Arabia braced Friday for protests calling for political and economic reforms a day after witnesses said police shot and wounded three Shiite demonstrators.

In Cairo, hundreds of Egyptians holding up crosses and Korans massed Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square to protest against sectarianism, following religious clashes that left at least 13 people dead.


© 2011 AFP

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