Kadhafi forces in new attacks, powers hold talks

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Forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi launched attacks Monday on a key town that rebels seeking to topple him have vowed to defend, as major powers held talks on the crisis.

Rebel fighters in Ajdabiya said four shells had crashed west of the town while a former officer who defected from Kadhafi's air force said there had been air strikes.

Former colonel Jamal Mansur also said rebels had regained a foothold in Brega, 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the west, which the Libyan army said it captured on Sunday.

Ajdabiya guards vital roads north along the coast to the rebel capital of Benghazi and east across the desert to the oil port of Tobruk, which has given the insurgents control of eastern Libya up to the Egyptian border.

The lightly-armed rebels have been pushed back some 200 kilometres by superior forces in the past week and are now only 170 kilometres from Benghazi, Libya's second city with a population of around a million.

Mansur said Ajdabiya could become "another Zawiya," referring to the town 40 kilometres west of Tripoli that was reconquered by pro-Kadhafi troops last week after bitter and deadly fighting.

The rebels braced for new attacks knowing they could expect little quarter from Kadhafi's troops equipped with heavy weaponry and warplanes to which they have virtually no answer.

Libyan army spokesman Colonel Milad Hussein said those troops were "marching to cleanse the country" of insurgents, whom he called "rats and terrorists."

But state television in Tripoli said former Libyan soldiers like Mansur who defected to the rebels would be pardoned if they surrender to government forces.

Mansur admitted the rebels were seriously ill-equipped and warned they could turn to urban guerrilla warfare.

"We are asking the West to carry out targeted strikes on military installations" as proposed by France, he said as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Paris for talks with G8 counterparts.

Clinton was also to meet members of Libya's opposition national council in Paris on Monday or Tuesday, a US official said.

The Group of Eight powers -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States and Russia -- were to discuss proposals for a no-fly zone to ground Kadhafi's warplanes.

The UN Security Council also began talks on Libya on Monday, with France saying it hoped Arab League support for a no-fly zone on Saturday would be a "game-changer" in securing international action.

Britain and France have drafted a resolution for the Security Council to enforce a no-fly zone, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on Sunday vowed to step up efforts to have the measure approved.

Russia has appeared reluctant and the United States, Germany and Italy have taken a cautious line on intervention.

Moscow's UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said Monday that "fundamental questions" remained including "who is going to implement the no-fly zone (and) how the no-fly zone is going to be implemented".

Prime Minister David Cameron admitted later that Britain has yet to "win the argument" for a no-fly zone but said support from the region at the weekend was "very encouraging".

A no-fly zone plan is to be put to NATO on Tuesday, according to Clinton, but alliance member Turkey voiced opposition to intervention, warning it could have dangerous consequences.

Libya's opposition national council said a no-fly zone would boost the anti-regime forces.

"If Kadhafi's forces are at the gates of Benghazi and there's a no-fly zone, of course we will fight," said council spokesman Abdelhafez Ghoqa.

"We can expect anything from a man like Kadhafi, but we will do our best to win," he said in response to a question about the possible bombing of Benghazi.

Meanwhile Libya's state news agency said Kadhafi had invited Chinese, Russian and Indian firms to produce its oil instead of Western companies which fled the unrest.

Most oil companies operating in Libya, including French Total and Chinese CNPC, have partially or completely shut down production since the uprising against Kadhafi began a month ago.

The television said Sunday that "Libyan oil terminals have become safe... And we urge (foreign) firms to send their tankers to load and unload."

Total said the unrest in Libya had slashed output by 1.4 million barrels a day to under 300,000, but Qatar's Energy Minister Mohammed Saleh al-Sada said the world oil market was "comfortable" despite the conflict.

National council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil was quoted by the Financial Times on Monday as saying countries not supporting the uprising would miss out on access to Libya's oil if Kadhafi's regime is deposed.

In other developments, Russia slapped an entry ban Monday on Kadhafi and froze all financial operations involving the Libyan leader's family and top security aides involved in the violent crackdown on the opposition.

President Dmitry Medvedev's decree also prohibited the export of all goods and services potentially linked to any type of military activity, in addition to an arms export ban imposed last week.

Elsewhere in the region, troops from Bahrain's neighbours entered the Shiite majority kingdom across a causeway from Saudi Arabia on Monday after weeks of protests against the Sunni monarchy.

Saudi Arabia said Monday it had answered a request by Bahrain for support against a security threat under an agreement of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council.

Bahrain's opposition said it considered any foreign military intervention to be an occupation, as thousands of protesters again swarmed into the kingdom's business district, where clashes with police on Sunday left some 200 people hurt, according to medics and residents.

The United States urged Gulf states "to show restraint and respect the rights of the people of Bahrain, and to act in a way that supports dialogue instead of undermining it."


© 2011 AFP

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