Benghazi, Libya – The Obama administration appeared Sunday to welcome the formation of a national opposition government in Libya, as rebels feared dictator Moammar Gadhafi was preparing forces to launch counterattacks.
As she prepared to fly to Geneva, Switzerland, for a Monday meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “we've been reaching out” to forces working to oust Gadhafi and are prepared “to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States.”
Clinton's comments came as former high-ranking Libyan aides to Gadhafi who resigned since the uprising and his bloody crackdown began 12 days ago met behind closed doors in rebel-held Benghazi in eastern Libya, the country's second-largest city, to create an alternative national government.
Organizers said the government will include liberated cities and towns and emphasized it was temporary. Rebels were trying to organize a military offensive but they did not appear to have the plans, supplies or manpower in place to move on Gadhafi.
With an unconfirmed death toll estimated in the hundreds to the thousands, Gadhafi still held the capital of Tripoli on Sunday.
One Tripoli resident, Naser, reached by telephone after nightfall, said the city was mostly quiet after days of attacks, but that there was unusually heavy activity at a major military airbase near the capital. He asked that his last name be withheld to protect his security.
“Believe me, he is preparing for something,” he said of Gadhafi. “He's been preparing for something like this all his life.”
Naser pleaded for outside intervention, saying, “We do not have the power to defeat Gadhafi on our own,” and predicting: “The rebels will not come to Tripoli. Tripoli is his fortress.”
Residents of nearby Zawiya said Gadhafi's forces were circling the outskirts of their city after being run out days ago.
Two men told McClatchy in separate interviews by cell phone that Gadhafi forces were attacking on the edges of the city but had not re-entered the center, but that they feared that could happen at any time. The men spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety. One of the men also said there had been about two dozen kidnappings in the city since Friday.
It was unclear how high-level the U.S. overtures to the opposition have been — or just what sort of aid has been offered or accepted.
Clinton did not explicitly recognize the legitimacy of the opposition government and did not indicate there was any offer of U.S. military assistance.
While Clinton is in Geneva, President Barack Obama is to meet Monday in Washington to discuss the situation with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The meetings follow the U.N. Security Council's adoption of sanctions late Saturday to freeze Gadhafi's and his family's assets, ban their travel and the travel of close associates and forward possible war crimes charges to the International Criminal Court.
Clinton said the discussion is “just at the beginning of what will follow Gadhafi.”
“First we have to see the end of his regime with no further violence and bloodshed, which is a big challenge in front of all of us,” she said. “But we've been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and as the revolution moves westward there as well. I think it's way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we're going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States.”
She said countries in the region have an obligation to stop any of their own citizens from going to Libya to work as mercenaries for Gadhafi.
A spokesman for the opposition government, Abdulhafid Gouqa, said at a news conference in Benghazi on Sunday that the organizers were not talking to foreign governments and were not interested in outside intervention.
He also emphasized that the government was still being shaped and that he could not offer many specifics, but he insisted there would be no negotiations with Gadhafi's regime. “Our blood cannot be negotiated,” he said.
In Benghazi, organizers of the temporary government also asked local banks to issue 200-dinar loans, worth about $164, to account holders, saying the loans could be repaid through withholdings to future paychecks once residents were able to return to work. In Tripoli, Gadhafi was offering 500 dinars to loyalists.
More anti-government protests were reported across the Middle East on Sunday. At least one protester was killed by security forces in Oman, according to news service reports. The Tunisian prime minister agreed to step down, after reports of at least five protesters being killed since Friday. Thousands also protested against the king in Bahrain
Back in the United States, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, urged Obama to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, which would prevent Gadhafi from flying military aircraft to attack rebel territory, and to offer aid to the provisional Libyan government being formed in liberated areas in the country's east.
The senators told CNN that Obama's response to the crisis has not been tough enough, notwithstanding the need to get U.S. diplomats and other citizens out of the country.
“I understand that America's security and safety of American citizens is our highest priority. It is not our only priority,” McCain said.
Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, son of the dictator, told ABC News in an interview aired Sunday that “we didn't use force,” that the media was falsely reporting the situation, that Gadhafi wasn't stepping down, that aides who defected are “hypocrites” and that what Gadhafi does is none of the United States' business.
Tareq, a Libyan-American who left Tripoli on Friday aboard a U.S. government-chartered ferry to Malta, said in a telephone interview from London on Sunday that what is taking shape is not a civil war as Gadhafi and his sons have insisted. He asked that his last name be withheld to protect family still in Libya.
He said Libyans overwhelmingly are against their leader. “If this is a war, it's a war of the people against the Libyan regime.” He said there were pockets of resistance to Gadhafi throughout Tripoli, in the neighborhoods of Fashloom, Zawiya el-Dihmani and Souq al-Jouma, but that those still were being met with deadly force, and that ongoing military transports from the airbase outside Tripoli suggest Gadhafi is still importing African mercenaries to fight.
(Youssef reported from Benghazi, Libya. Talev and Strobel reported from Washington.)