Libyan warplanes launched at least four air strikes on a rebel-held town in the east yesterday as the two sides faced off across a new frontline close to major oil export terminals.
The battlefield has become mired in attack and counter-attack between the loose-knit rebel army of young volunteers and defectors and Libya’s army in a buffer zone of barren desert and scrub between east and west.
Libyan rebels rejected overtures by a representative of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to negotiate his exit as his grip on power is increasingly challenged.
There were four air strikes, one hitting a residential area in the oil terminal town of Ras Lanuf yesterday following similar attacks the previous day.
No casualties were reported.
“An air strike hit a house in a residential area of Ras Lanuf. There is a big hole in the ground floor of the two-story home,” one witness said. “A massive plume of smoke and dust flew up in the area from the strike. Men rushed to the area shouting: Allahu Akbar [God is great].”
Many homes, including the one hit, appeared to be evacuated. Families fled the oil town and rebels moved their weapons into the desert out of fears of a government forces ground attack.
Officials at rebel headquarters, based in Libya’s second city of Benghazi where the uprising against Qaddafi began, said there had been talks about Qaddafi stepping down.
“I confirm that we received contact from a Qaddafi representative seeking to negotiate Qaddafi’s exit. We rejected this,” said a media officer for the rebel Libyan National Council, Mustafa Gherian.
A Libyan Foreign Ministry official said reports that Qaddafi was offering to step down were “nonsense.”
However, Arab media had reported that the Libyan leader had reached out to the council to offer talks on Qaddafi’s departure, which is the central demand of rebels who have seized swathes of the country mainly in the east from the Libyan leader’s control.
A council source on Monday said he had heard of a proposal that Qaddafi hand power to the head of parliament and leave Libya with a guaranteed sum of money.
Rebels, who have set their sights on Qaddafi’s reinforced hometown of Sirte further west said government forces had dug in their tanks near the town of Bin Jawad while rebels retreated to the oil town of Ras Lanuf and set up a forward checkpoint.
The largely inexperienced rebels lack the firepower of their rivals. They have no warplanes to back them up and rely mostly on heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and rocket propelled grenades. They travel by 4x4 pick-up trucks.
Western powers will meet this week to assess their options for military intervention and for tackling a migrant exodus from the oil-rich nation.
With experts now warning of a drawn-out conflict of attrition, the pros and cons of Western military intervention headline a two-day NATO ministers’ meeting starting tomorrow in Brussels, as well as an emergency EU summit specially convened Friday to discuss the crisis in Libya.