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How French jets saved Libya's rebels at the last minute

International airstrikes led first by France devastated an armored column loyal to Muammar Qaddafi overnight – saving the rebellion with little time to spare.

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Decisive role

The international community has now taken a decisive role in Libya’s civil war, despite the statements of US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and other Western officials that this is only about civilian protection, not regime change.

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In Benghazi today, the leaders of the rebel’s ragtag army were drawing up plans for how to move west, and civilian leaders were once again confidently predicting Qaddafi’s demise.

Mustafa Gheriani, the spokesman for the rebels transitional government in Benghazi, says their forces were sweeping up scattered bands of Qaddafi’s troops in the city throughout the day.

To be sure, there remain military challenges that international airpower will not easily be able to address. There were multiple accounts of dead Qaddafi fighters found wearing civilian clothing under their fatigues – and in some neighborhoods, residents reported finding discarded military uniforms.

That implies that some Qaddafi loyalists have secreted themselves within Benghazi and blending with the local population. It would not be hard to pick up a rifle and pose as a volunteer with the rebel militia, which still has little and command and control from officers, and pass intelligence back to Tripoli.

How did Libya and the international community get here?

On March 5, the lightly-armed young rebels of Libya’s uprising against Qaddafi were racing west in the beds of pickup trucks, grinning into the wind, saying they were confident God was on their side and victory was in their sights.

Salim Fatah bin Kayali, whose father spent seven years in Qaddafi’s prisons, spoke for all of them as they roared into the dusty town of Bin Jawwad. In the midst of 300 miles of desert that divide eastern Libya from Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte he said “there’s no stopping us.” The fighters around him made jokes about breakfast in Tripoli.

Then the hard reality set in. The rebels were driven out of Bin Jawwad the next day, a precursor to Qaddafi’s ruthlessly efficient march east in the following ten days.

With air raids and rocket fire from an unassailable distance, the regime’s forces drove the rebels out of the desert. The rebels had no answer to an enemy that they rarely saw, and broke and ran under continuous barrages.

The towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega – built around some of Libya’s most important oil infrastructure – fell in short order. By March 14, Ajdabiya – the last population center before the rebel capital of Benghazi, the key to the uprising’s survival, was under threat.

“We have to hold on here,” said Saheer al-Saidi, a militiaman speaking at rebel command post inside the town that afternoon. “Qaddafi will be arresting and killing thousands if we lose.”

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