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Qaddafi air strikes intensify, unnerving Libya rebels

As NATO and UN powers debate whether to impose a no-fly zone on Libya, rebels on the eastern front in Ras Lanuf are feeling the pressure from stepped-up air strikes.

By Staff writer / March 8, 2011

Rebels pray in front of an antiaircraft gun in front of a refinery in Ras Lanuf on March 8. Libyan government troops, tanks and warplanes attacked rebels on the western and eastern fronts on Tuesday, pressing their campaign to crush an insurrection against Muammar Qaddafi. In the east, a swathe of which is under rebel control, airstrikes targeted rebel positions behind the frontline around the oil town of Ras Lanuf on the Mediterranean coast.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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Ras Lanuf, Libya

In the past 24 hours, pilots loyal to Muammar Qaddafi have peppered rebel positions on the eastern front of the Libyan war, creating few casualties but feeding the growing unease of an uprising that has stalled.

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“If we didn’t have to fear the planes, we’d be advancing much more quickly,” claims Mohammed Abdel Salim, one of hundreds regular army soldiers who defected from Qaddafi’s regime in mid-February and is now helping to organize the civilian militia just west of Ras Lanuf. “We completely reject foreign troops here, but we want help against his planes.”

The increasing tempo of bombing raids around Ras Lanuf, an oil export and refining hub about 150 miles from Benghazi, the rebellion’s de facto capital, came as NATO planners met in Brussels to consider the practicalities of extending a no-fly zone over Libya.

Britain and France are supporting a draft resolution at the United Nations calling for action to be taken. But China and Russia, always wary of international support for uprisings, are unlikely to support a no-fly zone at the UN Security Council.

NATO is unlikely to take action without a resolution from the Security Council, which could be forestalled by a veto from any of its five permanent members: Britain, France, China, Russia, and the US. President Obama said earlier this week he hasn’t ruled out any military options, but US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder has indicated that the Obama administration isn’t overly keen on the idea at the moment.

“We have actually seen a decrease in both fighter and overall air activity over the weekend,” Mr. Daalder told reporters. “To date, the overall air activity has not been the deciding factor in the ongoing unrest.”

200-pound bombs dropped on Ras Lanuf

NATO has surveillance planes flying over Libya, so Daalder should have good information on Qaddafi’s raids. But on the ground in Ras Lanuf, local rebels see it differently.

Bomb strikes in the east have largely fallen harmlessly in the desert or been focused on munitions dumps in an effort to prevent the rebellion from arming itself. But yesterday afternoon and today, the bombs appeared to be dropped with more lethal intent.

Yesterday evening, two bombs hit the edge of the coastal highway that is the only east-west transport artery along Libya's Mediterranean coast, spraying shrapnel into a pickup truck and a station wagon filled with civilians fleeing the fighting.

In the pickup, there’s dried blood where the driver exited the car, and boys' and girls' sandals in the back. Sabra Mohammed, a militiaman, says he was one mile behind the car when it was hit, and that he thinks all the passengers inside were killed. But the director of the hospital in Brega says that it was a family, that the father driving the car was badly wounded, but everyone survived.

This morning in Brega, a Sukhoi jet dropped 200-pound bombs near the intersection of the highway and the road to Ras Lanuf, where hundreds of militia are massed. The bombs overshot, landing on a house a few hundred yards away, sheering off its front.

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