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Libyan Rebels, Invoking UN, May Ask West for Airstrikes

Libya — In a sign of mounting frustration among rebel leaders at Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s diminished but unyielding grip on power, the revolutionary council here is debating whether to ask for Western airstrikes on some of the regime’s most important military assets under a United Nations banner, according to four people with knowledge of the council’s deliberations.

Libya — In a sign of mounting frustration among rebel leaders at Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s diminished but unyielding grip on power, the revolutionary council here is debating whether to ask for Western airstrikes on some of the regime’s most important military assets under a United Nations banner, according to four people with knowledge of the council’s deliberations.

By invoking the United Nations, the council, made up lawyers, academics, judges and other prominent figures, is seeking to draw a distinction between the airstrikes and foreign intervention, which the rebels say they emphatically oppose.

“He destroyed the army. We have two or three planes,” said Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, the council’s spokesman, speaking of the rebel’s military disadvantage. He refused to comment on the council’s deliberations or any imminent announcement, but said: “If it is with the United Nations, it is not a foreign intervention.”

But that distinction is lost on many people, and any call for foreign military help carries great risks. The anti-government protesters in Libya, like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, have drawn broad popular support — and great pride — from their status as homegrown movements that toppled autocrats without outside help. An intervention, even one with the imprimatur of the United Nations, could play into the hands of Colonel Qaddafi, who has called the uprising a foreign plot by Western powers seeking to occupy Libya.

“If he falls with no intervention, I’d be happy,” said one senior council official. “But if he’s going to commit a massacre, my priority is to save my people.”

There was no indication that the United Nations Security Council members would approve such a request, or that Libyans seeking to topple Colonel Qaddafi would welcome it. Russia has dismissed talk of a no-fly zone to curb Colonel Qaddafi’s still-active air force, and China has traditionally voted against foreign intervention.

Even so, the discussions signaled a rebel movement both impatient with a military stalemate that has crippled the country, and out of good options. Those who support the airstrikes hope they might dislodge Colonel Qaddafi from crucial strongholds, including a fortified compound in the capital, Tripoli. The council is only considering strikes against the compound, Bab al-Aziziya and assets like radar stations, according to the people briefed on the discussions, who requested anonymity because no formal decision on the announcement has been made.

On Tuesday, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces appeared to make little headway in a concerted assault on rebels in several cities around the country and in a sustained attack early Tuesday morning in the western city of Zawiyah.

With escalating hostilities bringing Libya closer to civil war, rebels appeared to hold the city after a night of fighting, fending off tanks and artillery, special forces and regular army troops and, rebels said, fighter jets.

Rebel leaders in Libya said the latest attacks by Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters smacked of desperation, and that the failed assault on Zawiyah, a city with important oil resources just 30 miles from the capital, raised questions about the ability of the government to muster a serious challenge to the rebels’ growing power.

At the same time, Colonel Qaddafi faced a growing international campaign to force him from power, as the United Nations General Assembly voted on Tuesday to suspend Libya’s membership on the Human Rights Council, following its bloody attacks on protesters. On Monday the Obama administration announced that it had seized $30 billion in Libyan assets and the European Union adopted an arms embargo and other sanctions.

As the Pentagon began repositioning Navy warships to support a possible humanitarian or military intervention, the United States ambassador to the United Nations promised on Tuesday to maintain that pressure until the embattled Libyan leader quits. “We are going to keep the pressure on Gaddafi until he steps down and allows the people of Libya to express themselves freely and determine their own future,” the envoy, Susan Rice, said in an interview on “Good Morning America.”

Mrs. Clinton, just back in Washington after consultations in Geneva with her foreign counterparts, warned that Libya could be facing the prospect of a protracted civil war. She also reiterated that a no-fly zone for Libya was “under active consideration.”

But in her comments, made to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she laid out one of the several reasons Western countries are moving with caution on such an option. Mrs. Clinton said that the administration was keenly aware that the Libyan opposition was anxious to be seen “as doing this by themselves on behalf of the Libyan people — that there not be outside intervention by any external force.”

In Saudi Arabia, the arrest of a prominent Shiite cleric and rumors of military activity apparently were enough to spark a major sell-off in a stock market on edge over the recent unrest, which so far has not gained a foothold in the tightly controlled monarchy. The Saudi index fell by 6.8 percent on Tuesday, the biggest one-day drop in two years.

Colonel Qaddafi has remained defiant. In an interview on Monday with ABC News, he said he was fighting against “terrorists,” and he accused the West of seeking to “occupy Libya.” He gave no hint of surrender. “My people love me,” he said. “They would die for me.”

Those unyielding words, and the colonel’s military attacks were met with both nerves and defiance by rebel military leaders as the two sides seemed to steel themselves for a long battle along shifting and ever more violent front lines.

The antigovernment protesters, who started their uprising with peaceful sit-ins but have increasingly turned to arms to counter Colonel Qaddafi’s brutal paramilitary forces, have promised a large military response that has yet to come. At the same time, government forces have been unable to reverse the costly loss of territory to a popular revolt that has brought together lawyers, young people and tribal leaders.

Across the region, the tumult that has already toppled two leaders and threatened one autocrat after another continued unabated on Monday. In Yemen, protests drove President Ali Abdullah Saleh to make a bid for a unity government, but the political opposition quickly refused and protesters returned to the streets on Tuesday.

An opposition leader, Mohamed al-Sabry, said in a statement that the president’s proposal was a “desperate attempt” to counter Tuesday’s protests.

The enduring impact of the region’s turmoil was evident in Cairo, where Egypt postponed the reopening of its stock exchange again on Tuesday until Sunday. The exchange has been closed for over a month, after antigovernment protests in late January shook investor confidence and drove the value of the country’s benchmark index down 17 percent in two trading days. In Bahrain on Tuesday, protesters marched down King Faisal Highway in the capital, Manama. In Oman, whose first major protests were reported over the weekend, demonstrations continued on Tuesday, a day after violent clashes with the security forces in the port city of Sohar, and the unrest spread for the first time to the capital, Muscat.

Witnesses in Tehran said there was a heavy police presence on the streets on Tuesday. Citing opposition Web sites, Reuters said protesters in the Iranian capital clashed with security forces firing tear gas. Those reports, and others posted via social media, could not be immediately verified.

The political landscape continued to shift in Tunisia, where the interim government on Tuesday granted the main Islamist group, Ennahda, permission to form a political party, Reuters reported, two days after the resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a close ally of the ousted president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The Islamic group had been banned under Mr. Ben Ali’s two-decade rule. In a further sign of turbulence, one of the most prominent opposition leaders, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, who founded the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, said he was quitting the interim government, news reports said.

Libya itself seemed to be brewing a major humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of mostly impoverished contract workers tried desperately to flee to its neighbors, Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east. The United Nations refugee agency called the situation a humanitarian emergency as workers hauling suitcases stood in long lines to leave Libya, many of them uncertain how they would finally get home.

In Zawiyah, residents said they rebuffed a series of attacks on Monday and into Tuesday morning, suffering no casualties but killing about 10 soldiers and capturing about a dozen others. A government spokesman confirmed the death toll.

“It is perfect news,” said A. K. Nasrat, 51, an engineer who is among the rebels, before adding, “There is no way they are going to take this city out of our hands unless we all die first.”

The first attack took place shortly after midnight, when some pro-Qaddafi soldiers in pickup trucks tried to pass through the city’s eastern gate, Mr. Nasrat said. But they were spotted by rebel sentries who defeated them with help from army and police defectors defending the town. Four soldiers were killed and several captured, with some of the captives readily surrendering their arms and switching sides, he said

Then, in the early evening, several witnesses said, the Qaddafi forces — believed to be led by his son Khamis’s private militia — attacked from both the east and the west. Three pickup trucks tried to enter the narrow city gates from the west, but a rebel-held artillery unit struck one, blowing it up and overturning a second truck, Mr. Nasrat said. Six more pickup trucks tried to breach the eastern gate, he said, but after an exchange of fire the rebels captured two of the trucks and several of the soldiers.

“So about 12 or 14 soldiers were hostages,” he said, “and 8 of them turned over their arms and joined the people. They are on our side now.”

For days, military leaders in Benghazi have said they are preparing to assemble a force of thousands to conduct a final assault on Tripoli; some of the officials have even promised to send planes to bomb Colonel Qaddafi’s fortified compound, Bab al-Aziziya.

But there are few signs that a plan has materialized, though military leaders maintain they are simply waiting for the right time. A fighter pilot sympathetic to the antigovernment protesters, Mohammed Miftah Dinali, expressed some frustration that he had not yet been called on to aid the rebel effort.

“My friends and I are willing to go and do an airstrike on Qaddafi’s compound,” he said. “I cannot just sit and watch this happen.”

This article “Libyan Rebels, Invoking U.N., May Ask West for Airstrikes” originally appeared at The New York Times.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Kareem Fahim reported from Benghazi, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Tripoli, Libya. Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from Benghazi, Brian Knowlton from Washington, Alan Cowell from Paris, Steven Lee Myers from Geneva, and Liam Stack from Cairo.

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