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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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But by the next morning, March 15, Qaddafi had started shelling the town of 100,000. Rockets struck the hospital and multiple homes. The Obama administration, which had been publically wary of international action at a time when the US remains embroiled in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, started to change its tune.

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke that day of international action beyond a no-fly zone, including measures “to enable the protection of Libyan citizens against their own leader.”

Meanwhile, rebel leaders continued to insist they could fight off Qaddafi’s better equipped and organized forces. Rebel military spokesman Khaled el-Sayeh insisted Adjabiya would not fall.

But the next day, Ajdabiya was surrounded and besieged, Qaddafi’s forces active in the city. Qaddafi’s son and regime spokesman Saif Islam was boasting that the rebellion would soon be crushed.

On March 17, rebel forces were pushed back to the outskirts of Benghazi. During the day, Qaddafi promised “no mercy” for the rebels inside Libya’s second largest city and felt confident enough to bring down foreign reporters from Tripoli to Ajdabiya, to show his progress in retaking the east. The reporters saw tanks, grad rocket launchers, and fuel tankers massing, all implying his pause at the Ajdabiya would not last for long.

That set the stage for the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 at around midnight local time Thursday, which promised all measures to protect the city, and Libyan civilians more broadly.

On March 18, Qaddafi continued to pound holdouts in Ajdabiya with rocket fire – fleeing residents told of houses flattened and indiscriminate attacks.

The next day it was Benghazi’s turn, Qaddafi appearing to determined to eat up as much territory before international action began.

His ruined tanks and dead fighters on the city’s outskirts now indicate that final push was a failure.

What next?

It's difficult to predict what will happen next. Benghazi is secure for now, with Qaddafi having learned that his armor is completely naked to international airstrikes if he tries to move forward again. But the rebellions fighters are no better armed or organized than they were two days ago.

And Qaddafi himself is as defiant as ever. “We promise you a long war,” he said in a phone call to state television today.


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