Rebels mass for counter-attack

Anti-govt fighters glad and wary of US support, ministers defection

On attack mode: A Libyan rebel plugs his ears as anti-government fighters fire a rocket at troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi on the road between Ajdabiya and Brega, Libya, on Thursday. AP

“We are beginning to see the Gadhafi regime crumble,” rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said in the eastern town of Benghazi, while stopping short of welcoming fugitive foreign minister Moussa Koussa, a former spy chief, into the rebel fold.

Analysts agreed the defection of Koussa, who flew to London on Wednesday, was a blow to Gadhafi and belied the advantage his forces have gained on the ground in recent days. It did not, however, reduce the risk of greater government violence.

Despite almost two weeks of Western air strikes, Gadhafi’s troops have used superior arms and tactics to push back rebels trying to edge westward along the coast from their eastern stronghold of Benghazi towards the capital Tripoli.

News that US officials told Reuters that President Barack Obama had authorised covert operations in Libya raised the prospect of wider support for the rebels.

Experts assume special forces are on the ground “spotting” targets for air strikes. But public confirmation from Washington may indicate a willingness for greater involvement.
The rebels, whose main call is for weapons—not authorised yet by Washington because of a UN arms embargo which Nato says it is enforcing—said they knew nothing about Western troops in Libya and conceded too big a foreign role could be damaging.
“It would undermine our credibility,” Gheriani said.

Obama’s order is likely to further alarm countries already concerned that air strikes on infrastructure and ground troops by the US, Britain and France go beyond a UN resolution with the expressed aim only of protecting civilians.

The top Vatican official in the Libyan capital cited witnesses on Thursday saying at least 40 civilians had been killed in Western airstrikes on Tripoli.

 Nato said it was investigating but had no confirmation of the report. Libya’s state news agency, citing military sources, said Western air strikes had hit a civilian area in the capital overnight, but did not mention casualties.

Rebels said Gadhafi loyalists had killed 38 civilians over the past two days alone in Misrata, the only town in western Libya still under rebel control. “Massacres are taking place in Misrata,” a rebel spokesman called Sami said by telephone.

Britain said it was focusing air strikes around Misrata, which has been under siege from government forces for weeks. Rebels say snipers and tank fire have killed dozens of people.

About 1,000 people are believed to have been killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of Gadhafi since the uprising against his 41-year-old rule began on Feb. 17, the British government said.

The rag-tag forces fighting Gadhafi say they desperately need more arms and ammunition to supplement supplies grabbed from government depots.

Nato, which took over formal command of the air campaign on Thursday, said it would enforce a UN arms embargo on all sides: “We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the people,” Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Stockholm.

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