Libya rebels mark major gains against Qaddafi

Libya rebels reclaimed the Misurata airport yesterday. As they advance on the eastern oil town of Brega, Britain offered them several million dollars in aid and a London office.

Darko Bandic/AP
In this photo taken on a government organized tour, government officials inspect damage caused by an airstrike at Bab al-Azaziya compound in Tripoli, Libya, May 12. NATO airstrikes struck Muammar Qaddafi's sprawling compound in Tripoli and three other sites early Thursday, hours after the Libyan leader was shown on state TV in his first appearance since his son was killed nearly two weeks ago.

• A summary of global reports.

Libya's rebels on Wednesday marked major gains against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi, seizing control of the Misurata airport, advancing on the strategic oil town of Brega, and welcoming more defections from Qaddafi's government.

The rebels were boosted by international support, as NATO airplanes bombed the capital of Tripoli overnight and Britain invited the rebels' National Transitional Council to set up an office in London.

The advances come after nearly three months of fighting that have seen the rebels make major advances only to be beaten back by Col. Qaddafi's troops, with both sides digging in for what seemed to be a fight with no end in sight.

Gains on either side remain tenuous.

“The rebels may be getting the upper hand because of external support, but it is too early to call,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told Bloomberg. "We have to wait to see if another brick wall emerges. Qaddafi may have more tricks up his sleeve.”

NATO bombs Tripoli after Qaddafi makes rare appearance

Qaddafi appeared on state television Wednesday in his first public appearance since April 30, when NATO attacks on his compound killed his son Saif al-Arab and three of his grandchildren. His appearance, in a filmed meeting with tribal leaders, seemed designed to quell rumors that he was sick or injured in the attack.

Soon after the footage aired on television, NATO warplanes dropped four rockets on Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound of Bab al-Azaziya, a government spokesman told CNN. The Financial Times reported that "jets screeched overhead during the night and at least three explosions boomed out at about 3 a.m., witnesses said."

Libyan officials have criticized NATO airstrikes for exceeding the mandate of United Nations Resolution 1973, which authorizes member states to take all necessary measures short of a foreign occupation to protect civilians under attack in Libya.

John Burns, reporting from Tripoli for The New York Times, explains that NATO has "determined that Col. Qaddafi himself is the most important control and command structure of all and that that makes him a legitimate target."

Rebels seize Misurata airport

Also on Wednesday, rebels in beleaguered Misurata stormed the city's airport and reclaimed it from pro-Qaddafi soldiers. Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, sits about 116 miles east of Tripoli.

The New York Times described the airport's seizure as a major gain for the rebels, reporting: "With the loyalists suffering a string of defeats in recent days and the rebels gaining weapons and confidence, Colonel Qaddafi now appeared weaker than ever before, Misurata residents said. With their advance, the rebels had, at least for the moment, the potential to cut off government forces in the east from those in the west of Libya, threatening the logistics lines of Qaddafi forces."

The Financial Times notes with caution that "The capture of the airport is a blow to the Gaddafi regime, although previous important rebel gains have quickly been reversed as the conflict has ebbed and flowed."

Eastern rebels advance on Brega

While Misurata's anti-Qaddafi forces stormed their city's airport, rebels in the east advanced westward from Ajdabiya toward the oil town of Brega. The rebel attack highlighted increased coordination with NATO. The rebels made a preliminary attack, then pulled back about 12 miles on orders from NATO to provide bombers with a zone to hit pro-Qaddafi targets, reported The Wall Street Journal.

"There was a really large force of Gadhafi forces heading towards Adjabiya," Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, the spokesman for the rebel army, told the Journal. "As they moved on Adjabiya they were hit by NATO forces."

"We expect to be able to capture Brega but it will take time. Our training is improving," Abdul Jawad, commander of Omar Mokhtar Brigade that took part in the rebel assault, told the Journal.

Britain supports National Transitional Council

On the diplomatic side, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the Libyan rebels’ national council, met in London on Wednesday with Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William J. Hague.

Mr. Cameron pledged to provide "several million" dollars worth of equipment to the rebel police in Benghazi and to host a rebel office in London.

"The government is today inviting the council to establish a formal office here in London," Cameron said at a joint press conference with Mr. Jalil. "We will work with you to ensure that the international community increases the diplomatic, the economic and the military pressure on this bankrupt regime."

Britain has yet to officially recognize the National Transitional Council, formed Feb. 27, as Libya's legitimate government. France and Italy are thus far the only Western nations, in addition to several Arab states, to do so.

More defections

Today the Libyan consul in Cairo, Faraj Saeed Al-Arabi resigned and joined the rebels, following the steps of former Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa and other high-ranking diplomats to defect.

“In response to the souls and blood of the martyrs of the February 17 revolution, I, Faraj Saeed al-Aribi, the Libyan consul in Cairo, declare my resignation and my joining of the February 17 revolution,” al-Aribi said during an interview with the Al Arabiya television network.

Both camps continue to wage a propaganda campaign.

A statement Wednesday from the rebel capital of Benghazi, said: "The National Transitional Council reiterates its demand that Gaddafi relinquish power over the ... parts of the country that remain under regime control."

Meanwhile in Tripoli, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said late Tuesday that the rebels' "are losing the battle. Their morale is very low.”

The rebels now control most of eastern Libya.

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