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

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    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.
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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.

“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.

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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.

Thankfully, no one was home. The second bomb didn’t detonate, and was still lying in the middle of the tidy neighborhood as of late afternoon.

Libyan-American from Missouri joins ranks

At the crossroads, the young fighters are excited and tense. Furious antiaircraft fire erupts when a jet is heard screaming overhead, but not seen.

One of the antiaircraft guns is manned by a Palestinian man who’s lived in Libya for decades. The man is a former loyalist of Ahmed Jibril, whose Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command was once supported by Qaddafi, and says he fought on Qaddafi’s orders in Chad and Lebanon. But now, he says, he wants the dictator to be swept from power.

But the rag-tag militia has lost momentum in their fight against Qaddafi, whose resources are far superior to that of the rebels.

“A lack of weapons is our real problem,” says Khalil Areigi, one of a growing number of members of the Libyan diaspora, many of whose families fled the country after falling afoul of the regime, who are joining the fighting here.

Mr. Areigi, a student at the Science College in Benghazi and president of its student council, says he led a group of 50 fellow students to the front a few days ago, and was lucky to escape with his life when Qaddafi’s forces counterattacked at Bin Jawwad – the next town west from Ras Lanuf – on Sunday.

At the time, the Libyan-American – he says he spent a good chunk of his childhood in Missouri and is wearing a Mizzou sweatshirt – was armed only with a heavy stick. He says the offensive came as members of Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Guards, who’d secreted themselves in civilian homes, poured out to engage the rebels. His 2004 Dodge was destroyed by an RPG, but he hitched a lift with other retreating fighters.

No-fly zone, or more?

But despite their lack of military strength, many rebels strongly oppose any intervention from outside powers.

“Give us a no-fly zone, but no ground troops,” says Khalid al-Ghouri, a Libyan-Norwegian with an AK-47 who returned home from Norway to join the uprising on Feb. 17. “Qaddafi is no Libyan. Kill your father, your brother, your family? No one can do this. But Qaddafi? He’s a sick man and it’s time for him to go.”

Mr. Ghouri says he has a Norwegian wife, a son back in Norway, and no military training, but remains committed to seeing this war out two days after his best friend, Mohammed Rafah al-Warfali, was killed in the rout of rebel fighters from Bin Jawwad.

“I’m a Norwegian and a Libyan,” he says. “If Norway was under attack, I’d fight there, too.”

Mr. Warfali, like Ghouri, lived in Norway. He was killed Sunday by an antiaircraft gun. Qaddafi’s forces have frequently turned these heavy guns on protesters and rebel ground forces.

Indeed, a no-fly zone by itself wouldn't exactly de-fang Qaddafi, as events in the western city of Zawiya today made clear. The BBC reported that 50 tanks tried to move into the rebel-held town and shelled residential neighborhoods. While the death toll is unclear, as many as 100 civilians were reportedly killed.

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