Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s tanks and artillery struck a rebel-held town and other loyalist forces advanced on Libya’s main rebel bastion of Benghazi yesterday as diplomatic efforts to stop him appeared to lose momentum.
Italy, a potential base for a no-fly zone proposed by Britain and France, ruled out military intervention to support an increasingly vulnerable-looking rebellion against Qaddafi’s rule.
“We cannot have war, the international community should not, does not want and cannot do it,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in Rome.
As the Libyan army told people in Benghazi to lay down their arms, aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres said the violence had forced it to withdraw its staff from Benghazi and begin moving teams to Alexandria in Egypt.
“Security conditions have made it effectively impossible for medical teams to travel safely to areas where the fighting has created the greatest need,” it said.
Residents in rebel-held Misrata, 200km east of the capital Tripoli, Qaddafi’s stronghold, said his forces had attacked the city using tanks and artillery.
“Very heavy bombardments are taking place now from three sides. They are using heavy weapons including tanks and artillery ... They have yet to enter the town,” said one resident, called Mohammed, by telephone.
In Benghazi, where the revolt began, residents said they had found leaflets lying in the city streets suggesting that if they gave up the fight against Qaddafi now, they would not be harmed or punished.
The leaflets accused rebels of being driven by al-Qaeda and high on drugs, an allegation routinely leveled by the government against an uprising that was inspired by pro-democracy rebellions that toppled the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents.
Salah Ben-Saud, a retired undersecretary at the Agriculture Ministry, said in Benghazi that life in the town was normal and “pro-Qaddafi people have not really shown their face.”
“There were rumors that he [Qaddafi] would try to take back Benghazi and that made people a bit nervous, but he didn’t and people here don’t think he would succeed anyway if he tried,” he said.
Thousands gathered in a square in Benghazi on Tuesday evening denouncing Qaddafi as a tyrant and throwing shoes and other objects at his image projected upside down on a wall.
Foreign powers have condemned Qaddafi’s crackdown but show little appetite for action to support the revolt.
Supporters of a no-fly zone to halt Libyan government air strikes on rebels circulated a draft resolution at the UN Security Council on Tuesday that would authorize one, but other states said questions remained.
The draft was distributed at a closed-door meeting by Britain and Lebanon after the Arab League called on the council on Saturday to set up a no-fly zone as Qaddafi’s troops advanced against the rebels based in the east.
German Ambassador Peter Wittig told reporters after the meeting his country still had queries, and noted that while the Arab League had called for a no-fly zone it also opposed any foreign military intervention.
Veto powers Russia, China and the US, along with Portugal, Germany and South Africa are among the members that have doubts about the wisdom of a no-fly zone.
A senior Libyan foreign ministry official said the government hoped to regain all rebel-held territories soon.