Rebels seize key Libyan town, Obama praises mission

26th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Libyan rebels seized control of the strategic town of Ajdabiya on Saturday, marking their first significant victory over Colonel Moamer Kadhafi's forces since the launch of the Western-led air strikes a week ago.

US President Barack Obama said the international mission had saved countless innocents from a "bloodbath" threatened by Kadhafi and the rebels thanked France for its role in the military blitz against Kadhafi but said "outside forces" could now leave the country.

But Russia's top general called the air strikes unsuccessful and said a ground operation would likely be needed to topple the Libyan strongman.

In Ajdabiya, the rebels, backed by a barrage of Western bombardment, poured into the town, where destroyed tanks and military vehicles littered the road, AFP correspondents at the scene reported.

The bodies of at least two pro-Kadhafi fighters lay on the ground, surrounded by onlookers taking photos, while a mosque and many houses bore the scars of heavy shelling as the rebels celebrated, firing shots into the air and shouting "God is greater."

Outside the town, the bodies of 21 loyalist soldiers had been collected, a medic told AFP on Saturday.

Osama al-Qasy from Benghazi's Hawari hospital said the bodies were found 10 kilometres (six miles) west of Ajdabiyan. Other charred corpses remained in the desert, covered by blankets.

Regime loyalists had dug in at Ajdabiya after turning back from the road to Benghazi following the first coalition air strikes. They were accused by residents of brutalising the population.

Resident Ibrahim Saleh, 34, told AFP: "The tanks were firing on the houses non-stop. I couldn't move from my house for days. There was no water or fuel or communications, and when people went out even to get fuel they were fired on.

"The coalition air strikes were yesterday and the day before. They attacked from the skies and the revolutionaries came in afterwards and freed the city," he said.

Ajdabiya, which straddles the key road to Benghazi, is the first town to fall back into rebel hands since a coalition of Western forces launched UN-backed air strikes on March 19 to stop forces loyal to Kadhafi attacking civilians.

Elsewhere, huge explosions shook a military site in an eastern suburb of Tripoli early Saturday as Western forces piled pressure on the regime with an aerial barrage.

The blasts left a radar facility in flames in Tajura, home to several military bases, a witness told AFP.

"The district was shaken by three explosions in succession," the resident said, adding that the explosions had shattered windows.

"The raid targeted a military radar site which is still on fire," the resident, who lives close by, added.

Under increasing pressure to explain his strategy to Americans, President Obama gave his most detailed review of the conflict so far, and insisted American national interests were behind his decision to order US forces into UN-mandated combat.

"Make no mistake, because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians -- innocent men, women and children -- have been saved," Obama said in his weekly radio and online address.

The president said a week into the operation that when innocent people were brutalized, by a leader like Kadhafi threatening a "bloodbath" and when nations were prepared to respond together "it's in our national interest to act."

"And it's our responsibility. This is one of those times," Obama said.

"Our military mission in Libya is clear and focused," he added, noting the no-fly zone was mandated by the UN Security Council and that an international coalition was protecting Libyans to prevent "further atrocities."

"We're succeeding in our mission. We've taken out Libya's air defenses. Kadhafi's forces are no longer advancing across Libya."

The Libyan opposition's interim national council leader Mahmoud Jibril said his people no longer needed outside help, in a letter addressed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, published by the daily Le Figaro.

"In the middle of the night, your planes destroyed tanks that were set to crush Benghazi. ... The Libyan people see you as liberators. Its recognition will be eternal," he wrote.

However, Jibril added: "We do not want outside forces. We won't need them. We will win the first battle thanks to you. We will win the next battle through our own means."

Chief of staff of Russia's armed forces, General Nikolai Makarov, told the Interfax news agency in Moscow."Air (strikes) as I see it have not given them results.

"If their aim was to topple the regime of Kadhafi, then probably they will not manage without a ground phase," he was quoted as saying. "I would not rule it out."

He reaffirmed Russia's position that it would not take part in the international operation, saying that "there is not even any thought of this."

US officials said the relentless pressure on Kadhafi and his allies was beginning to take its toll, and that the veteran Libyan leader was arming volunteers.

"We've received reports today that he has taken to arming what he calls volunteers to fight the opposition," said US Vice Admiral William Gortney.

Until now, Kadhafi is believed to have relied on militias run by his sons as well as African mercenaries to fight poorly-armed but determined opposition forces.

Kadhafi "has virtually no air defence left to him and a diminishing ability to command and sustain his forces on the ground", said Gortney following the air strikes launched by the United States, Britain, and France.

"His air force cannot fly, his warships are staying in port, his ammunitions stores are being destroyed, communications towers are being toppled, his command bunkers rendered useless," Gortney said.

© 2011 AFP

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