Libya takes rebel city; U.N. mulls action

March 17, 2011 at 2:03 PM
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BENGHAZI, Libya, March 17 (UPI) -- Libya's forces Thursday recaptured Misurata, the last major western rebel foothold, and bombed opposition capital Benghazi, Libyan officials said.

The seizure of coastal Misurata, Libya's No. 3 city after Benghazi, 130 miles east of Tripoli, was accomplished with a mass of ground forces, Libyan state-controlled Aljamahiriya TV reported.

An opposition activist said by e-mail forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi pummeled the city with artillery, killing at least two civilians and four fighters and injuring at least 15, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The reported recapture, which could not be independently confirmed, followed Libyan forces' retaking Zawiyah, another western town that had been held by the rebels.

Rebels there described dozens of casualties when Gadhafi forces laid siege to that city.

The second day of air force bombings of the port city of Benghazi brought Gadhafi's forces the closest to the rebels' stronghold since the anti-Gadhafi uprising began Feb. 14, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The regime's forces firmly controlled the road between Benghazi and Ajdabiya, 95 miles south, shooting at anyone attempting to travel that way, witnesses told the newspaper.

But the rebels successfully shot down at least two bomber planes and commandeered tanks and helicopters as they struggled to defend their Benghazi stronghold, The New York Times reported.

While fighting, the rebels sought to buy time against hope for some form of international military backing, the Times said.

The United States joined Britain and France in pushing for a U.N. Security Council vote Thursday to authorize airstrikes and possibly other military action against Libya, U.S. officials said.

The Pentagon fine-tuned military options for "serious" strikes against ground and air targets in Libya, military and defense officials said.

A defense official told the Journal the U.S. military had enough assets in place to begin strikes almost immediately.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Wednesday she was working on language for a resolution to authorize not just a no-fly zone above Libya, but additional steps to halt Gadhafi forces.

The United States was initially unenthusiastic about a no-fly zone, but Rice said a no-fly zone plus other measures were needed. Russia expressed concern about imposing a no-fly zone and its implications and has offered a counter-resolution that calls for a cease-fire first.

The International Committee of the Red Cross withdrew from Benghazi, saying it feared an imminent attack by Gadhafi forces.

The U.N. resolution includes language authorizing all necessary measures to protect civilians, which some diplomats have interpreted as allowing strikes against government ground forces if civilians are under attack, officials said.

Lebanese U.N. Ambassador Nawaf Salam said a "number" of Arab nations would join in enforcing a no-fly zone but did not specify which nations would participate, the Journal reported.

The resolution would authorize members of the Arab League and other states to "take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian objects in Libya."

Libya's deputy U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who broke with the Gadhafi regime last month, warned Wednesday if the international community did not intervene right away, Libya risked genocide.

"In the coming hours we will see a real genocide if the international community does not act quickly," he said Wednesday.

Gadhafi's second-oldest son, Saif al-Islam Moammar Gadhafi, said Wednesday: "Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi."

He added: "We don't want to kill. We don't want revenge. But you -- traitors, mercenaries -- you have committed crimes against the Libyan people. Leave, go in peace to Egypt."

Meanwhile, the fate of four New York Times journalists last seen Tuesday in Libya was unknown Thursday.

The Obama administration "strongly urges the governments in the entire region -- in this case, those in Libya -- to protect journalists, allow them to do their work, do not harass or in any way detain or use violence against journalists," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

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