Tue, Mar 29, 2011 - Page 1 News List

Rebels in Libya close in on key Qaddafi bastion

HEARTS AND MINDS:A rebel commander has said that as well as the military assault, the rebels are attempting to win over those loyal to Qaddafi

AP, BIN JAWWAD, LIBYA

Libyan rebels pray on Sunday near Ajdabiya, near the scene of fierce fighting the day before and what locals described as a brutal siege by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces.

Photo: AFP

Rebel forces yesterday fought their way to the doorstep of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold guarding the road to the capital Tripoli.

The lightning rebel advance of the past few days, backed by powerful international airstrikes, has restored to the opposition all the territory they lost over the past week and brought them within 100km of the bastion of Qaddafi’s power in the center of the country.

“Sirte will not be easy to take,” said General Hamdi Hassi, a rebel commander at the small town of Bin Jawwad, just 30km from the front. “Now because of NATO strikes on [the government’s] heavy weapons, we’re almost fighting with the same weapons, only we have Grad rockets now and they don’t.”

Russia, however, has criticized the international strikes against government forces that made the rebel advance possible, saying they have overstepped their UN mandate to protect civilians by taking sides in a civil war.

MISSILE ATTACKS

The US launched six Tomahawk missiles on Sunday and early yesterday from navy positions in the Mediterranean Sea, two defense officials said yesterday on condition of anonymity because they were not yet authorized to release the information.

That brought to 199 the number of the long-range cruise missiles fired by international forces in the week-old military intervention, one official said.

International air forces flew 110 missions late on Sunday and early yesterday — 75 of them strike -missions. Targets included Qaddafi ammunition stores, air defenses and ground forces, including vehicles and tanks, a third official said.

Libya’s rebels have recovered hundreds of kilometers of flat, uninhabited territory at record speeds after Qaddafi’s forces were forced to pull back by the strikes that began on March 19.

In a symbolic diplomatic victory for the opposition, the tiny state of Qatar recognized Libya’s rebels as the legitimate representatives of the country — the first Arab state to do so.

Hassi said there was fighting now just outside the small hamlet of Nawfaliyah, 100km from Sirte, and scouting parties had found the road ahead to be heavily mined.

STRATEGY

He added that the current rebel strategy was to combine military assault with an attempt to win over some of the local tribes loyal to Qaddafi over to their side.

“There’s Qaddafi and then there’s circles around him of supporters, each circle is slowly peeling off and disappearing,” Hassi said. “If they rise up it would make our job easier.”

Moving quickly westward, the advance retraced their steps in the first rebel march toward the capital that was stopped on March 5 by Qaddafi’s superior weaponry. However, this time, the world’s most powerful air forces have eased the way by pounding the government’s military assets for the past week.

Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Qaddafi-controlled west along the Mediterranean coast. It is a center of support for Qaddafi and is expected to be difficult for rebels to take.

West of Sirte is the embattled city of Misrata, the sole place in rebel hands in the country’s west. Residents reported fighting between rebels and Qaddafi loyalists who fired from tanks on residential areas.

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